City approves landmark public records suit settlement with the Tallahassee Democrat

This text exchange shows City Manager Rick Fernandez asking a lobbyist for football tickets. Photo: Special to the Tallahassee Democrat

Tallahassee Democrat by Jeffrey Schweers
January 3, 2018

The City Commission unanimously approved a landmark settlement agreement with the Tallahassee Democrat Wednesday over a lawsuit alleging public records law violations related to deleted text messages.

As part of the agreement, the city admits it violated the Florida Public Records Act when it failed to produce text messages of former City Manager Rick Fernandez asking for expensive college football tickets that he later denied requesting.

It also lays out the groundwork for a series of new city policies and procedures related to the retention and production of text messages and the use of cell phones for city business that could serve as an example for other cities around the state.

“I am glad we are at this point now, because over the last several months many of us who work in this office have slipped and maybe even fallen from being the shining beacon among local governments with compliance to Chapter 119,” City Attorney Lew Shelley told commissioners.

Up until now, the city has had no policy for retaining text messages.

Over the last several years, the city has not kept up with new technology, creating a gap between the city’s public records policies and Florida statutes.

Florida’s Public Records Act includes texts as public records, along with emails, faxes and other correspondence.  Any text message “made or received pursuant to law or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency” constitutes a public record, whether it’s on a personal phone or city-issued phone.

“Be that as it may, I have had to admit in writing, with respect to text messages, that we have not been in compliance,” Shelley said. “And there is no reason we should sugarcoat that.” [READ MORE]

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