A judge ruled that Nassau Board of County Commissioners officials and employees violated the public records law by failing to timely provide records, improperly deleting text messages, and failing to undertake a reasonable search for requested text messages.
As the Fernandina Observer reports, Rayonier and Radient asked for text messages of county employees and commissioners related to a development project in October 2018. The county did provide some records responsive to the request. However, the county failed to provide 147 responsive text messages. Five months after filing their requests, Rayonier and Radient filed suit for violation of the public records law. The county provided 30 pages worth of text messages. In response to a subpoena, a county employee provided an additional 147 pages worth of text messages responsive to the request. The judge noted that no one asked the employee for text messages she had in her possession. The judge also opined that the county failed to provide any reasonable explanation why it took three months to ask the employee for her records and why the county denied existence of these records.
The judge noted that the officials deleted text messages based on the understanding that the records were “transitory” and did not need to be retained for a long period. However, the judge found that the messages deleted were not transitory in nature but were intended to formulate knowledge on a subject and should have been retained accordingly. The judge explained that deleting messages without any concern for the content of the messages is inconsistent with the mandates of the Public Records Act and retention requirements.
The order reiterates that text messages sent from personal cellphones can constitute public records. Whether a text message is a public record and how long it should be retained depends on the nature of the message — not the location of the message.