Advertisement
  1. Archive

PHONE FLAP RAISES PUBLIC RECORDS ISSUE

BlackBerrys and other devices are changing communication, and compliance with rules.

Sen. Mike Fasano sat through a meeting of his chamber's banking and insurance committee last spring and watched a fellow lawmaker field instant messages on his BlackBerry. A lobbyist was feeding questions to ask the Office of Insurance Regulation speaker before them.

"That's inappropriate," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey, without naming names. "I leave my BlackBerry in my office. But I look down the row in committee and half of (the lawmakers) are looking down at their BlackBerrys."

Welcome to Tallahassee.

The era of electronic communication has changed the way elected officials communicate - complicating compliance with the state's public records law, and raising concerns about inappropriate contact that lobbyists and businesses might have with the agencies and lawmakers who can decide their fate.

Just last week, three staff members of the Public Service Commission were either reassigned or put on administrative leave after they sent their BlackBerry PIN codes to a Florida Power & Light lobbyist.

The dustup brought to light a practice that likely is unfamiliar to many citizens, but that is common in Tallahassee.

Walk through the Capitol or its surrounding streets during the legislative session and witness a sea of lawmakers and lobbyists pecking message after message into their BlackBerrys, iPhones and cell phones. Kill this bill. Add that amendment. What's the vote going to be? We need to talk.

Often, the messages are sent not throughstate e-mails but via text messages or PINs, unique instant messages that are routed between individual BlackBerrys without leaving a paper trail. Capitol reporters use PINs and text messages, too - in part for speedy delivery, and in some cases because sources feel most comfortable using a medium they see as less traceable than e-mail.

"It has given me grave concerns,'' said PSC executive director Mary Bane, whose agency is reviewing the practice to see how other agencies handle it. "We don't want to violate public records laws, but it seems like a gray area."

Bane said the controversy comes at an especially difficult time as the PSC, the state's utility regulator, hears a rate case.

"We are concerned about public perception,'' she said. "We don't want to lose the public trust."

State agencies, legislators and Gov. Charlie Crist were warned months ago about the effect fast-developing communication mediums like iPhones, Facebook and BlackBerrys have on public records access. A report delivered in January by the Commission on Open Government Reform alerted them to the growing trend and recommended the creation of "policies and procedures for ensuring that public records maintained on personal computers or transmitted via personal Internet accounts are disclosed and retained according to law."

Commission leader Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation, has drafted legislation based on the group's suggestions. But Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the governor - a vocal advocate for public records - has not decided on his legislative agenda.

Crist formed the group in 2007, shortly after taking office, to review public records laws and recommend necessary changes.

The commission stressed that while the use of personal computers and handheld devices like iPhones and BlackBerrys "has changed the nature of communication," it "has not diminished the value of Florida's open government laws or the need for public officials to consistently follow the law."

Sen. Paula Dockery, a commission member, gets PINs, text messages and e-mails on her BlackBerry.

"It's all coming in so fast, I don't pay attention which message is which type," said Dockery, R-Lakeland. "And I never thought of PINs or text as a way to avoid creating a public record. I just saw it as an instant message."

Citizens for Sunshine, a nonprofit devoted to transparency in government, has asked the PSC to provide the PIN messages of its staff and commissioners, as has the Times/Herald.

"It's seems to be the all the rage these days for public officials to use unconventional methods of communication to circumvent public records law, and BlackBerry PIN-ning is certainly one of those forms,'' said Michael Barfield, a legal consultant to the group. "It raises questions in my mind: Why would someone use PIN-ning when the e-mail is readily available and text messaging is readily available?"

PSC chairman Matthew Carter last week disabled all text messaging on state-issued BlackBerrys. PSC commissioner Nathan Skop also asked the PSC's inspector general to take additional measures to squelch such communication, including banning all handheld electronic communication devices from the PSC hearing room and purchasing software to allow the commission to monitor BlackBerry use.

George Sheldon, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, remembers when state agencies used carbon paper. Today he carries a BlackBerry. The PINs he occasionally gets are from his assistant, sending him phone messages that came to his office.

"But I'm not a big e-mail user either," he said. "I'd rather get a call." He pointed to the handheld case management devices that DCF workers are starting to use as proof that technology can be "hugely beneficial."

"But we've got to figure out how to adjust to it. Because there can be abuses on it," he said. "I think it's kind of rare, frankly. But there's that whole line that 'laws alone cannot make men right.'"

Fasano said PINs and text messages can be a valid form of fast communication.

"But you don't want to be using them in a way that might have some major implication on legislation or on a vote that's going to be taken on an important policy issue," he said. "And we need to limit it to make sure it has nothing to do with policy. Especially if it's between legislators."

Staff writer Marc Caputo and researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement