Officials from across Central Florida delete texts, review finds

January 26, 2013 

ORLANDO — Leaders of some of Central Florida’s largest governments have been deleting text messages that likely would be considered public records under Florida law, an Orlando Sentinel review of records has found. The review also found public officials have sometimes used text messaging for substantive discussions with lobbyists and others. Both Orange County and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority acknowledged to the Sentinel that some of their board members and senior staffers have erased or otherwise lost government-related text messages that can no longer be recovered. The Orange County School Board said one of its board members had deleted text messages in the past, though it’s unclear whether any were district-related. The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority was unable to say whether any of its board members have deleted messages. A spokeswoman said board members, who use personal phones, generally do not engage in texting about authority business. Other agencies said their leaders do no public text messaging. For instance, a spokesman for the University of Central Florida said 12 of the school’s 13-member Board of Trustees had neither sent nor received a single message dealing with university business during about a six-month period. The Sentinel conducted its review by requesting text messages from all governing board members and one senior staffer from six local governments: Orange County, the city of Orlando, the aviation authority, the expressway authority, the school district and UCF. The request was made Dec. 4 and sought all texts discussing public business that had been sent or received since July 1. To date, only two governments have provided what they say are all the text messages. The city of Orlando turned over 218 pages of screen shots detailing hundreds of texts to and from Mayor Buddy Dyer, his chief of staff and city commissioners. UCF turned over 21 texts, all taken from the phone of President John Hitt. No government has a formal program in place to track all text messages. The school district was so stumped as to how to retrieve texts that it asked the Sentinel to make a narrower request to serve as a test case. The newspaper agreed, and the district last week turned over a month of messages — totaling 33 pages of screen shots — from the phone of board Chairman Bill Sublette. A 2010 Florida attorney general’s opinion says text messages in the conduct of public business are public records that must be archived. Some officials, including Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, have questioned how long those texts deemed to have “short-term value” must be retained. But First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said, “I don’t think there’s any room for debate” that if a text has “to do with public business, it is a public record.” Petersen, an expert on public-records law, said that if agencies fail to treat texts as public records, “They run a big risk of a major lawsuit.” Orange leaders are now working to adopt reforms that would limit texting during meetings and find ways to retain them. Several other agencies, including the aviation authority and UCF, say they have instituted policies aimed at curbing the use of text messaging for public business. The issue of texts and public records erupted Sept. 12, the day after the Orange commission delayed a sick-time ballot measure from the Nov. 6 ballot. Jacobs, several commissioners and top staff were texting with opponents of that measure during the meeting. In responding to public-records requests made then, Jacobs and other county leaders revealed they had deleted texts from the day of the vote. Only Jacobs and Commissioner Scott Boyd have recovered and released them. Jacobs’ chief of staff, Graciela Noriega Jacoby, says that about a week after receiving a record request for texts, she lost all of them from that period during a routine system upgrade to her personal phone. Commissioner Fred Brummer, Commissioner Jennifer Thompson and former Commissioner John Martinez also say they can’t recover deleted texts. The Sentinel agreed to accept county text messages dating back to Aug. 1 because that matched a similar records request from the sick-time initiative’s backers, who are suing the county over the vote to delay the proposal. Because much of the communication has occurred on personal phones of officials, it has taken months to collect. Many of the texts are mundane, but some are substantive. For example, among those Boyd turned over, a Mears Transportation Group lobbyist opposed to the sick-time measure texted him that “activists 1/8are3/8 trying to box in Mayor (Jacobs) and ask for more time” to collect petitions to get it on the ballot. Mears lobbyist Shannon Gravitte then added, “need your help on this to make sure they’re held to same standard as everyone else.” In an exchange released by Orlando, a lobbyist for Walt Disney World and Mayor Buddy Dyer’s chief of staff discussed how they expected the Orange County Commission to vote on an agreement to renovate the Florida Citrus Bowl stadium. The discussion centered on an amendment one county commissioner intended to introduce that was opposed by most renovation supporters — including Disney, which relies on traveling football fans to help fill its hotels and parks.

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