Public text messages should be no-brainer

Local governments are so befuddled about how to archive public officials' cellphone text messages that we're left to guess what kind of conversations are taking place about the public's business.

Was Orange County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson discussing her latest shoe purchase, weekend plans or what she ate for lunch — you know, "girl talk" as she called it — with a Walt Disney World lobbyist on the day of the sick-time vote?

Or were the two talking about things the public would care about, such as how the vote would go down and who was pulling the strings?

We shouldn't have to settle for wanting to be flies on the wireless wall that harbors our public officials' public communications.

We should be able to learn with as few obstacles as possible how the public's business is conducted.

That's the law.

But that's not what's happening.

Instead, our public officials, from the Orange County Commission to Orlando's airport authority, have deleted text messages that should have been preserved as public records, as Sentinel reporters David Damron and Jason Garcia disclosed in Sunday's Orlando Sentinel.

Imagine if officials were caught shredding documents that lay out the justification for the latest toll increase on State Road 408. Isn't the public entitled to know the reason for the increase? Shouldn't we toll-payers be privy to how the decision was made and who benefits?

If you answered yes, then you ought to be just as concerned — and ticked off — about deleted text messages.

Because if we make an exception for text messages, then we might as well travel back in time to an era when secret meetings dominated local governments, before Florida's 1967 "Government in the Sunshine" law pulled back the curtains on public business.

Text messages are quickly replacing email, just as email replaced paper memos.

But local officials and agencies are treating texting as some kind of mysterious new technology — like the almost upright hominids recoiling before the black monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Local governments know elected officials and staff are using texts to communicate. It's hard to imagine why they wouldn't have a system set up to archive texts, just as they do with email, memorandums and other public records.

Central Florida can at least take heart that this isn't only a local problem.

The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at University of Florida surveyed all 67 Florida counties in 2011 about their policies regarding text messages and social-media use by public officials. Of the 53 counties that responded, only 10 reported a system to retain text messages.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs has proposed a list of reforms such as banning commissioners from texting during meetings and requiring lobbyists to log all communications with elected officials.

The tough talk is inspired by embarrassing disclosures that some commissioners deleted texts (and now can't recover them) from the day of the vote on a controversial proposal to require businesses to offer employees paid sick leave.

Some of the reaction has been telling.

"It's crap. It suggests either we are incapable or purposefully trying to get around the law," Commissioner Fred Brummer told the Sentinel this month.

Truer words... If reforms weren't needed, then we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448

CHICAGO

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