Mar 1, 2022 - News

D.C. mayor's WhatsApp use spurs stronger public records law

Illustration of a hand holding a smart phone with a WhatsApp logo on the screen, in front of the John A Wilson Building.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously approved new rules to preserve government communications made on WhatsApp, after an Axios investigation found that the use of the messaging app in Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration raises public records concerns.

Why it matters: The bill emphasizes that messages on such platforms should be retained, and it forbids the use of a feature that can auto-delete messages.

Catch up fast: WhatsApp is widely used in District government for official government business, Axios found. Government ethics experts discourage the use of such apps unless safeguards are in place to retain communications for FOIA requests.

  • The mayor's office did not respond to multiple inquiries on whether the administration forbids the use of WhatsApp's auto-delete feature and how it ensures communications are archived.

What they're saying: In a letter to council chair Phil Mendelson before the vote, the mayor wrote that "we have had little time to research how to implement" the new rules, which were passed in an emergency bill that will later need a permanent version.

  • Bowser urged the council to apply the same rules for WhatsApp communications to its own lawmakers and staff.
  • "I am sure you would agree that it would be the height of hypocrisy to update record retention storage requirements for the executive side of the government, while shielding the Council's communications from public view," she wrote.

The details: The public records law from 1985 being amended by the council's bill did not apply to the legislature. Mendelson spokesperson Lindsey Walton said the council separately sets rules for the preservation of official communications.

  • "If anything, our Emergency Act will bring executive agencies in line with the more stringent requirements that the Council has already been subject to," Walton wrote in an email.

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