Florida’s open records laws apply to all forms of communication — including text messages.
A recent records request for text messages between officials and staff in Holmes Beach — and the lack of retention of the text records — led to new cellphones with digital tracking for staff, the mayor and commissioners.
In June, when the city planned to remove more than 1,000 on-street parking spaces without a commission vote, Michael Barfield, a paralegal consultant focusing on the enforcement of open government laws and board president of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, requested all text messages concerning parking exchanged between Mayor Judy Titsworth and Police Chief Bill Tokajer.
But the city had no system of recording and sharing texts.
So a slew of screenshots were provided to Barfield, who complained the city was not fulfilling its responsibility to make digital communications available to the public.
“Text messages are the most common method of communication,” Barfield texted The Islander Sept. 17. “Whether it’s sent or received on a private device doesn’t matter. It is essential that government properly archive text messages so citizens can readily know what their government is up to. In this case, the city took far too long to produce records that it should have been storing in accordance with the Public Records Act.”
According to the Florida Supreme Court, public records include all materials made or received by an agency in connection with official business that are used to “perpetuate, communicate or formalize knowledge,” including text messages, emails and other electronic forms of communication.
The policy in Bradenton Beach is that any city employee or commissioner who sends or receives a work-related text must save the message to their work computer.
LeAnne Addy, Anna Maria city clerk/treasurer, said the city does not have a digital tracking system, but has sent screenshots when records were requested.
Addy said she checks the text messages from both parties to ensure they match, ensuring the information is complete and nothing was deleted and the messages are then stored on her computer.
Titsworth said Sept. 16 that the city was advised by its attorneys and information technology company to start using a digital system to track data exchanges, including photos and texts.
As of Sept. 16, city staff and commissioners were issued new phones that are equipped with the suggested tracking system and digital retrieval capabilities. Titsworth said it may take a couple of weeks for all of the phones to be activated.
City treasurer Lori Hill said, previously, employees and officials received a cellphone allowance of $100 per month. With the new plan, the phones are provided at no cost to the employee and the monthly service cost for the city is about $47 per cellphone.
“We looked into the cost of phones and decided to replace all city phones so everything can be retrieved digitally with ease,” Titsworth said. “There was a deal that the phones would cost nothing and the amount the city would pay for service was actually less than we had been paying. So it’s a win-win.”