Local Government’s Big Text-Message Quandary

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Connecting state and local government leaders

It’s difficult for public officials to meet open-record rules when their personal cellphone is involved.

If a state or local government official discusses public business via text messages sent from or received on their personal cellphone, that electronic message is often subject to freedom of information statutes in various parts of the nation.

But state and local governments have found that preserving and archiving text messages can be highly difficult since those messages are hosted on multiple personal devices instead of on one central computer server.  

The News Tribune reported on Sunday that Washington state's third-largest city, Tacoma, has “has no consistent method to ensure the preservation and disclosure of text messages,” even as state law and court rulings mandate compliance.

Some local officials are trying to avoid that records-retention problem by limiting their use of text messages and trying to be proactive when public business is discussed through their private cellphones.

According to The News Tribune:

Toby Nixon, president for the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a Kirkland city councilman, said he tries to avoid creating text messages because they are so hard to track and retain. His solution is to forward important text messages he receives to his city email account, where messages are more easily retrieved for public records requests.

“We carried on the discussion via email,” he said.

[State Archivist Steve] Excell . . . said his office doesn’t have a recommended way to save text messages. Even the state archives, charged with maintaining the history of the state, so far doesn’t have a single text message in it.

In Florida, where open-government advocates have complained that the administration of Gov. Rick Scott has “set the clock back on Florida’s open records tradition” through the use of private email accounts to discuss public business, the governor’s office says “it now discourages the use of text messaging by employees because text messages are hard to catalog due to the digital nature of the message,” according to a recent report in The Miami Herald.

In Mississippi, the city of Tupelo is poised to become the first city in the state to create an archive of the text messages of local officials and make them available to the public.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported earlier this month that Tupelo could be the first in the state to be in compliance with Mississippi’s open-records law, which mandates that “all local governments to permanently retain and archive all public records, including text messages and emails, that elected officials and department heads make related to public business.”

Tupelo’s rules for archiving text messages could be finalized next month.

(Image via Tsyhun/Shutterstock.com)

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