Cell phone text message records falls within the The Public Records Act of North Carolina. Requests by citizens are ever more encompassing of public business. The act details a wide variety of medium including papers, documents, letters, maps, photographs, books, films along with other documentary material.
The most recognized requests to local government for paper and email files are fairly standardized and mundane. While inquiries for cell phone text message records have been infrequent and far harder to fulfill.
This latest spat in public records access comes following text messages between two state officials lack of enthusiasm for The Public School System of Wake County creating it’s own police force. The cell phone text message records were sent from January 9th through to January 20th. The request was made by various newspapers and TV stations. The request though was the initiative of The North Carolina Open Government Coalition. The group also made other requests to numerous North Carolina local governments as well as government officials (19 in total).
However while the North Carolina official had no issues with complying with the request others weren’t so forthcoming. Commissioners in Meckleberg along with their staff were unable to produce cell phone text message records from the five week period requested. In New Hanover all except one responded as the county manager advised that the use of text messages by commissioner’s are not encouraged as they are hard to archive. The use of text messages to carry on county business is discouraged.
Without exception cell phone text message records are public records. With the ever increasing use of smart phones texts are a highly efficient way to organize meetings and business along with sharing information. That wasn’t the only unguarded exchange among the text messages supplied by Wake County officials. State officials and employees would do well to remember though that texts are indelible and some thought should be given prior to sending. Public records are in the process of being updated by Wake County to include cell phone text message records. The process of records collection is also being streamlined along with improving communication the tracking of documents between parties. Summer should see the completion of process and policy revisions.
Due to the status of texting in a climate of increasing app and messaging mediums the deletion of texts may well be innocent. Do the quality of texts merit sharing. A response to the public records request by Asheville was with screen shots of the texts as opposed to ‘searchable’ copies. The city responded that they were restricted due to technical limitations (software). There are third party apps to back up and retrieve text messages but these are platform specific and whether this could be integrated in to a central filtered database is unknown. However a function does exist to load cell phone text message records in to Gmail.
A small number of agencies confirmed texts were regularly purged. Some texts are viewed as no more than a basic calender with prompts over times of meetings and places. Thus the texts are not construed as ‘conducting county business’. While the Guilford County commissioners adhere to state law (disclosure), that law allows for the deletion of texts once they are irrelevant re: administrative value. Six of eleven commissioners advised they had no information remaining on their devices to make available for the coalition’s request.
Experts in public records advise that the interpretation is typical of state public records legislation. Cell phone text message records of a perfunctory nature can be deleted. Problems arise should texts detail key directives and/or controversial matters. However there is guidance imminent. A public records manual is to be re drafted in order that local government is better equipped to deal with public records requests. The onset of increasing technology has prompted an update in order to encourage compliance.
Some exchanges that came to light were exchanges over a seat on the council and a move to bring in an MLS team with public money in mind. Further exchanges on funding a stadium and “tourism dollars” also came to light. However the sheer volume of texts confirmed the extent to which council members rely on texts. The topics were wide and varied and included council commitments, mayoral appointments and constituents inquiring about contracts or licenses. Greensboro also consisted mostly of the anticipated exchanges. Two members of the council engaged in speculation over a city centre property currently under the ownership of the daily news paper. However, in the main, leaders kept property speculation discreet. Officials should not have concerns over texts becoming public. The widely held belief is ‘transparency in government’. Moreover this is an opportunity to confirm to the public that officials and elected members are serving the public and their actions and efforts are well intentioned and that integrity underpins day to day business.
Sunshine week is an annual incentive to draw attention to how open records are used by the press and journalists to seek government accountability. The North Carolina Open Government Coalition is based at Elon University. The coalition brings together government representatives, news organizations and those interested in empowering citizens and the public’s rights in respect of access to public documents.