Tallahassee Democrat Editorial
January 6, 2018
Tallahasseeans should feel great satisfaction with the city’s settlement of a public records lawsuit over preservation and disclosure of text messages.
We’re not gloating about the agreement worked out between this paper and local government. It would have been nice if the case had never arisen – if the city had acted openly to start with – but City Attorney Lew Shelley and city commissioners deserve credit for admitting they were wrong, and working to fix it.
At the same Wednesday meeting in which retiring City Manager Rick Fernandez’s separation agreement was approved, the commission settled a public-records dispute sparked by his solicitation and acceptance of costly tickets to an FSU football game. A friendly lobbyist whose firm had business pending with the city provided those tickets and Fernandez had purged texts they’d exchanged.
Initially, Fernandez denied the existence of any texts. When the Democrat reported the existence of the texts, Fernandez clammed up and the city claimed it never knew the texts existed.
In the spirit of an amicable legal settlement, we’ll accept that city officials really were unaware of the texts. The experience led to a new policy and, we hope, a change of attitude among those who create, transmit and maintain such records.
“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,” Shelley told commissioners as they discussed settlement of the suit on Wednesday. Chapter 119 is the open-government law.
He added that “I have had to admit in writing, with respect to text messages, that we have not been in compliance … and there is no reason we should sugarcoat that.”
Commissioners Curtis Richardson, who previously worked in state government and served in the Florida House, and Gil Ziffer, president of the Florida League of Cities, deserve particular credit for recognizing this as a golden opportunity. Ziffer said he hopes it will serve as a model for other cities around the state, if any need to be reminded that public records — all public records — are to be preserved and reasonably reproduced for citizens to see.
“We need to set an example,” said Ziffer.
In addition to admitting violation of the public-records act by failing to produce the texts, the city agreed to new procedures for use of cell phones in city business. If employees use their personal phones or computers to send a text involving city business, a copy will have to be sent to the government computer system for preservation as a public record. [READ MORE]