In a story that is likely to be repeated, the Orlando Sun-Sentinal has reported that Jennifer Thompson, an Orange County, Florida Commissioner deleted text messages which were sent and received during a public hearing. The topic of the hearing was a controversial proposal that would require many employers to provide paid sick-leave to their employees, chief among them, Walt Disney World.
Apparently, numerous lobbyists have been marshaled by well-heeled opponents of the measure. At least one of those lobbyists was trading text messages with Commissioner Thompson during a public meeting. It is unclear if other commissioners were also communicating with one another or with lobbyists.
The issue of text messaging by public officials is one that is going to lead to litigation. That seems like a certainty.
Under Florida law, a public record is defined as any material, regardless of location, form or means of transmission, that was created or received by a public agency (or anyone acting on their behalf) in the official course of business that was intended to communicate, perpetuate or formalize knowledge. Yep, that sounds like a text message.
It is potentially a criminal violation of Florida’s Public Records Act to destroy a public record. Public agencies are required to archive text messages, although the vast majority do not. That’s a problem, because custodians of public records who wish to destroy records must comply with document retention schedules approved by the Florida Secretary of State, Division of Archives and then complete a document disposition report prior to destruction.
It would be interesting to see how many public agencies in Florida utilize text messaging and how many of those agencies have a record retention policy in place that complies with Florida law. I’d be willing to bet that I could count those in compliance on my fingers and toes and have digits left over. That might actually be a fun project.