Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law gives the public the right of access to government meetings and public records. It ensures that government works out in the open for all to see – no backroom conversations between elected officials before a vote. However, as we recently found out, in Santa Rosa County those officials can send texts or even message through Facebook without anyone capturing it or knowing the difference.
So while Santa Rosa County walks all over the Sunshine Law, other Florida counties have invested money into systems that capture text messages and the like to ensure those records are archived and available. But no – not us – a county ripe with allegations of the “good ol’ boy” system at work. In our county you can do or say whatever you want by text message and no one will even know. Have a special interest? Text your commissioner and ask for a favor here or there. Or if you are a commissioner promise a “yes” or “no” vote on an issue in return for another commissioner’s support on a different issue. Go ahead – do it – it’s not kept as part of the record. Walk in the shade of the Sunshine.
Case in point: after a particularly contentious commissioners’ meeting in February where allegations were flying between Commissioner Williamson and Navarre Chamber CEO Judy Morehead, we wanted to get down to the truth. We made a records request and part of it was for emails and text messages to or from Rob Williamson concerning the Thursdays in the Park concert series. The request included his personal cellphone as well because we know for a fact he uses that phone to conduct county business. We made that request Feb. 17. After several emails to the person in charge of the request, we finally received the emails March 3. But, no text messages. After another several days of chasing our tails we were eventually told that they had to have the phone in hand to retrieve the text messages and the commissioner was out of town. March 6 we received text messages from the commissioner’s county issued iPhone.
And still we had to go back and ask for the text messages from his personal phone that are pertinent to the request. Yes, those are considered public records. And as of press time we are still waiting.
In this process, we ended up with more questions than answers. If the phone has to be presented to recover text messages, what would prevent a commissioner from deleting text messages knowing they should be archived? What kind of back door deals can be made on text messages, even on county issued phones, between commissioners? What about Facebook messenger?
According to a March 2016 article in the Miami Herald, 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.
While meeting the standards of the law certainly presents a challenge to all levels of government, the law must be adhered to so there is no question about the integrity of the documents and their completeness. Right now, we have to trust that when a commissioner says he didn’t send any texts, he didn’t. But that isn’t what the Sunshine Law is built on. It’s built on accountability. Navarre Press is tasked with holding those officials accountable. If we don’t, who will?
Come on Santa Rosa County – let the Sunshine in!