City approves landmark public records suit settlement with the Tallahassee Democrat
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.
2020年欧冠赛程表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.
2020年欧冠赛程表"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.
2020年欧冠赛程表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."
2020年欧冠赛程表City Commissioner Gil Ziffer, who also is president of the Florida League of Cities, said there was no question everyone needed to be more diligent in preserving text messages and he plans to make it a priority this year.
"We need to set an example," Ziffer said, thanking the Democrat for bringing the issue to light.
2020年欧冠赛程表The lawsuit was filed after it was discovered that Fernandez had deleted text messages about soliciting Florida State University football tickets from a local lobbyist in September 2016.
2020年欧冠赛程表When a Democrat reporter asked the city to produce those text messages, the city said no such record existed. Fernandez told the newspaper he never received such tickets.
At the time of the request, the lobbyist worked for Unconventional Strategies, a firm at the heart of a federal investigation of the city-county Community Redevelopment Agency and several key business leaders.
2020年欧冠赛程表A subpoena of the lobbying firm by the Florida State Commission on Ethics as part of its investigation of Fernandez produced the text messages in question. On Nov. 29, the Democrat sued over the fact that the text messages were public records, but the city did not retain them and were unable to produce them when requested, in violation of the public records act.
Under the changes, no city employee can transmit a public record via text message over a private cellphone or by private email without sending it to the state system for safekeeping.
Also, all text messages and emails sent via city cellphones or city email accounts are to be considered public records and must be retained by the city.
Violation of the public records law or city policies shall be grounds for disciplinary action, and repeat violations or "flagrant abuse" will be a firing offense.
The city will provide public records law training and provide notice in city policies about the duty to preserve and retain public records.
City commissioners and members of the leadership team will file annual reports confirming compliance with both state and city public records policies.
2020年欧冠赛程表The court will retain jurisdiction over the lawsuit until September 2018, during which time Tallahassee Democrat lawyers will conduct interviews to verify compliance with public records laws.
Finally, the city will reimburse the Democrat for its legal costs.
Democrat lawyer Jon Moyle said he and co-counsel John Bussian filed the suit to largely address the amount of public business being done via text message.
"The negotiated settlement achieved the Democrat’s goal of ensuring that public business conducted by text messaging is preserved and available to the public," Moyle said. "We believe that the agreement that our client reached with the City is a significant groundbreaking step forward to address public business conducted by text message."
Commission to interview City Attorney candidates
The City Commission Wednesday accepted the names of three candidates as potential replacements for longtime City Attorney Lew Shelley, whose last day is Jan. 30.
The candidates were recommended by a citizen review board two weeks ago. Out of a total of nine candidates who applied during a four-week solicitation period, those were the only three that met the minimum qualifications.
They are Cassandra Jackson, who has been deputy city attorney for years under Shelley; Steve Durden, who has over two decades of experience working for the city of Jacksonville General Counsel, and John Anastasio, a private attorney in Stuart who contracts as the attorney for smaller cities.
The job was advertised from Nov. 11 through Dec. 8 in national journals, offering an annual salary range of $102,440 to $277,992.
The commission will interview the candidates Jan. 17.
“If we are still not where we want to be then we can make a decision to readvertise,” City Commissioner Curtis Richardson said.
Contact Schweers at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.