Dispute spotlights gap in tracking officials’ messages

The current national Sunshine Week initiative (March 12-18) to educate the public about the importance of transparency in government finds Santa Rosa lagging in how it watchdogs officials’ mobile phone text messaging.

Unlike a growing number of Florida counties, Santa Rosa has neither formal guidelines on officials’ use of text messaging nor modern tracking technology to keep tabs on messages being exchanged by county commissioners, among others.

“Text messages are public records and considering their increasing popularity it seems worth looking into technology that can easily capture and archive those sent by county/city officials,” said Sam Morley, Tallahassee-based general counsel for the Florida Press Association, responding to a reporter’s email query.

Instead, Santa Rosa’s legal technology staff seemed taken unaware and somewhat aback recently by questions that arose about text messages between Commission Chairman Rob Williamson on his county-issued phone and Judy Morehead, president of the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. Both heatedly cited the texts as potential proof of their conduct in a dispute about the future of the Thursday concert series that Morehead’s group has managed for years.

But the texts couldn’t immediately be obtained. Getting copies of the messages was slowed in part because the county relies on an outdated method of retrieving the text messages instead of an automatic tracking system that can record and archive them. Retrieving the texts was also delayed because Williamson left town for a few days and the county’s legal techs needed to have his phone in hand to find the messages.

Further illustrating the county’s lack of oversight over officials’ texting, the legal staff didn’t know that Williamson sometimes uses his personal phone for calls and texts that regard matters involving the commission. In fact, he has used that phone in the past to call a Navarre Press reporter.

The texting tempest

To be sure, not every text message sent or received by public officials is subject to scrutiny under Florida law. For example, personal messages back and forth to a spouse about the family’s grocery shopping needs aren’t covered.

But according to a Florida Supreme Court advisory opinion issued in 2016, contacts “through the use of emails, texts, social media and other forms of electronic communication pertaining to official business are considered public records.” The court asserted that such public records “must be retained and produced when requested.”

That responsibility reared for the Santa Rosa legal technology staff—essentially two people—when Williamson and Morehead squared off over who-said-what-to-whom.

Both called for the other to find and furnish the text messages that would show whether they had conversations about the park concerts only recently—as essentially an afterthought by the chamber—or dating back to September. The latter would apparently back Morehead’s claim that her concert planning efforts long predated a move by the competing Greater Navarre Chamber of Commerce to take over the Thursday night event in 2018.

“You’re a liar,” Morehead told Williamson from the guest speaker podium at a county commission meeting Feb. 20.

“You have your story and I have mine,” he replied.

As it turned out, county officials couldn’t confirm that either Morehead or Williamson made a formal public records request for the text messages. This newspaper did—at a cost of $240–and found texts and emails between the two as far back as September 2016 that confirm meetings and conversations of about the possibility of moving the concert series to Navarre Beach. The messages include scheduled and proposed meetings that were can­celed by Williamson on multiple occasions or emails to which there was no response.

While the episode didn’t reveal either side’s firm stance on the highest moral ground from which to criticize the other, it spotlighted Santa Rosa’s duty to efficiently keep track of electronic communications from its public officials.

Further, it left unanswered questions: Could Williamson have deleted some text messages before turning over his phone to the county’s legal staff. Did the legal staff’s search of Williamson’s county-issued phone miss messages about the concert planning that he may have sent from his personal phone? (He declined to return a reporter’s phone calls, texts or emails containing questions about the matter.)

Moreover, should the county invest in technology that eliminates such questions and speeds searches of officials’ phone messages? Numerous companies make software that can track mobile phone texts and send them to a central repository where they are immediately available if needed. Several Florida counties, including Polk, Orange and Hillsborough, have purchased such systems as Text Guard or Mobile Guard in recent years at costs that can exceed $100,000.

That may be too pricy for small northwest Florida counties. But one possible solution comes from Barbara Petersen, president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee: “What would stop Santa Rosa from going to Escambia and some of the others in that region to form a group and negotiate a discount from software companies?”

Petersen said she didn’t know of any such group efforts by Florida counties or cities to drive such bargains. A spokesman for one such text tracking provider, New Jersey-based Easy Link, told a reporter that he wasn’t aware of his company ever being approached about the possibility of a collective arrangement. Such deals may be possible, he said, because providers would have the incentive of sales to small governments whose business they wouldn’t get otherwise.

Mixed message

But Petersen said Florida law sends local governments mixed messages of sorts that don’t encourage them to spend on text tracking technology.

On one hand, she said, “The burden is on them because they have the statutory duty.”

However, the law also allows governments to charge news media and individuals for public records searches and printing documents. Petersen said, “There’s no incentive for the governments … because you’re going to have to pay for gathering them.”

Yet for Santa Rosa County, some motivation to look into tracking technology may have surfaced in the troublesome spat between Williamson and Morehead. “While there will be a cost to keeping tabs on the texts, it seems well worth the benefit of easy compliance with the Sunshine Law…,” said The Florida Press Association’s attorney, Sam Morley. “You also avoid staff time and the headache of tracking down phones and taking screen shots of texts.”

What’s more, said Morley, it would be ironic if the lack of effective oversight via technology should discourage officials from using the increasingly popular time-saving method of communicating that’s at their fingertips: “Finally, it seems a waste if commissioners avoid easy texting simply because they don’t have the official tracking in place.”

Read the full article in the March 16 issue of Navarre Press. Subscribe online at navarrepress.com for as little as $38 per year.

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