Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Obtaining Florida elected officials' texts can be tricky — and costly

Correspondence related to public business by elected officials is public record. All of it. That means "snail mail," faxes and emails.

But muddying the public records law process is perhaps the most popular, quickest and often most creative way people communicate — text messages.

By state law, texts are public records, whether sent or received on a county-issued communication device or on a personal one paid for by the elected official. Public officials must archive the correspondence and turn it over on demand.

Depending on what county they're in, you might wait a long time or pay a hefty fee to find out what they've typed. Even then, you have to trust some when they say they didn't send any texts.

Requests for text messages were made by eight newspapers as part of an annual project by the Florida Society of News Editors in which governments are asked for the same types of documents and results are compared. The effort is part of Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government.

Response time varied — Palm Beach County commissioners took five business days to deliver texts. Other counties took as little as four business days, one as many as 11. Alachua County commissioners responded quickly, with one simply offering to hand his phone to a reporter.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville's state attorney declared, surprisingly, that her office doesn't believe text messages are public.

In Hillsborough County, four commissioners provided texts; two said they had none. And in Pinellas County, officials supplied only 12 texts. Four commissioners declared they had none during that period.

"I'm on my phone all the time, but unless I'm asking for directions or confirming a time for a particular meeting, I don't do texts or even Facebook messenger," Pinellas Vice Chair Janet Long said. "I really try to avoid it. It's not in the public domain."

It took Pinellas County officials seven business days to respond to the text message request. Although officials advised that they might charge for retrieving the messages based on the work involved, they subsequently provided them for free.

That differed from Palm Beach County, where getting commissioners' texts wasn't cheap.

Just getting one week's worth of texts — Jan. 25 to Feb. 1 — from each of the commissioners cost the Palm Beach Post nearly $200. And that's with four of the seven declaring they had sent none, and two of the remaining three sending all of two texts each.

In fact, Palm Beach was the only county, of those surveyed, to charge even a penny.

"I'm surprised," Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said. "I'm the one that had to take all the time and hours to get all the screen shots."

Through words, photos and even emojis — those digital images and icons that express an emotion or idea — texting can pose problems for public officials.

Among the complications: Screen grabs from the audited texts often showed only the contact name as the commissioner has it recorded in his or her cellphone. Sometimes a phone number, sometimes just a single name — "Ed," "Vogel," "Stacy."

Access to texts came to a head in 2012 in Orlando, when an advocacy group discovered Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and four county commissioners were exchanging cellphone text messages with lobbyists and others during a meeting and then deleting them.

That prompted a public records lawsuit by Citizens for a Greater Orange County, a coalition of groups that led the fight for a paid-sick-time referendum opposed by county officials and local tourism interests.

In 2013, Orange County leaders settled the "textgate" suit, agreeing to pay $90,000. Local prosecutor Jeff Ashton concluded commissioners violated public records laws, but unintentionally. Commissioners each paid a $500 civil fine, including Jennifer Thompson, who had texted with a Walt Disney World lobbyist 32 times on the day of the sick-time vote.

This month's audit through the FSNE project revealed that Mayor Jacobs and six Orange County commissioners texted 143 times in the time period requested.

One, Scott Boyd, said he'd stopped using his mobile phone to swap text messages with citizens, lobbyists, reporters and everyone else after "textgate."

"Are you kidding? It's not worth the headache," Boyd said.

Thompson said she has limited her use of texts since the scandal, generally communicating only with her staff.

"I think I learned my lesson," she said.

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, said there's an easy way for officials to handle texting and the question of public record compliance. She points to software that can create an archive of the text messages sent and received by elected officials. It has privacy protections for the politician, such as limiting archives to certain hours of the day or excluding any texts from a spouse.

But Petersen said most local governments don't use TextGuard, the text-tracking technology that was installed on Orange County-issued phones to archive electronic communications. Orange County was TextGuard's first government client, at an initial annual cost of $97,000 that has grown to $130,000 based on the number of cellphones in use.

Nearby Polk County, meanwhile, set up a system that enables commissioners and any other official to forward texts that they receive or send to a public records repository maintained by staffers. And Polk has a written policy barring use of texts to conduct county business without authorization by the county manager.

In Duval County, where the county and Jacksonville are a combined government entity, requests were made to various leaders including Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and State Attorney Angela Corey.

Williams said leaders at his department recently realized they did not have a policy in place to retain text messages, so he took it upon himself to start saving his own texts starting Feb. 10, a point after the FSNE request.

Corey's office contended text messages were not public record. It said text messages are "transitory" and "informal" and "have no administrative value."

But, the First Amendment Foundation's Petersen said, "Text messages are anything but transitory. How else can I look on my phone, purchased in 2012, and see every text message I've sent or received over the past four years?"

She said then-Attorney General Bill McCollum issued an informal opinion saying the same public rules for emails apply to text messages and even instant messages.

The Florida Times-Union, Gainesville Sun, Lakeland Ledger, Miami Herald, Ocala Star-Banner, Orlando Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and Tampa Bay Times contributed to this report.

Obtaining Florida elected officials' texts can be tricky — and costly 03/13/16 [Last modified: Sunday, March 13, 2016 7:42pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Mexicans dig through collapsed buildings as quake kills 225 (w/video)


    MEXICO CITY — Rescuers found a surviving child on Wednesday in the ruins of a school that collapsed in Mexico's magnitude 7.1 earthquake, one of many efforts across the city to try to save people trapped in debris under schools, homes and businesses toppled by the quake that killed at least 225 people.

    A man is rescued from a collapsed building in the Condesa neighborhood after an earthquake struck Mexico City, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. The 7.1 earthquake stunned central Mexico, killing more than 100 people. [Associated Press]
  2. Construction starts on USF medical school, the first piece of Tampa's Water Street project


    TAMPA — Dozens of workers in hard hats and boots were busy at work at the corner of South Meridian Avenue and Channelside Drive Wednesday morning, signaling the start of construction on the University of South Florida's new Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute.

    A rendering shows what the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute will look like when completed in 2019. Local officials gathered Wednesday to celebrate as construction begins on the facility, the first piece of the Water Street redevelopment area in downtown Tampa. [Rendering courtesy of the USF Health]
  3. Flooded Withlacoochee River nears crest


    The flooded Withlacoochee River neared its projected crest Wednesday, with expectations that the floodwaters will begin to recede by the weekend.

    LUIS SANTANA   |   Times This aerial drone view shows flooding in the Talisman Estates neighborhood along the Withlacoochee River.
  4. Tampa Electric rules, Duke Energy drools, Hillsborough commissioners declare


    TAMPA — The pile on of Duke Energy continued Wednesday in Hillsborough County, where commissioners boasted how quickly most of their constituents had power after Hurricane Irma.

    Duke Energy workers cut tree limbs off a power line on Sept. 11 following Hurricane Irma.
  5. Whatever USF has to say about Temple waits till Thursday


    "The holes were wide open. Anyone could have run through them."

    South Florida Bulls cornerback Mazzi Wilkins (23) intercepts a pass during the second half of the home opener for the South Florida Bulls against the Stony Brook Seawolves at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times