The Spokane Valley City Council’s commendable ban on texting and emailing during meetings underscores the challenge new technology presents to open government and the Public Records Act.
It’s easy to send a text message or receive one without thinking of the implications. Add Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and other social media tools, and the potential headaches for government agencies expand. The best practice for public officials is avoiding the use of their own tablets, smartphones and laptops when conducting the public’s business, but that’s not always possible or practical.
So agencies need to devise firm guidelines and educate their workers. The Attorney General’s Office and the Municipal Research and Services Center are two sources of valuable information. MRSC has an excellent online tutorial on texting and social media and the responsibility of government agencies to capture and retain messages that constitute a public record.
The first thing for officials to understand is that the content and function of each text, tweet or voicemail determines whether it is a record the public should be able to access. If it deals with government business, it is subject to an agency’s record retention guidelines.
Once that’s understood, officials will probably want to limit use of their personal devices because it’s easier to manage records on computers connected to government servers. However, if agencies allow public business to be texted or conveyed on social media, they should provide software to capture and retain that information. Third-party carriers, such as wireless companies, are not bound by government laws on records retention. They can delete as needed. But a city council member, for instance, should not delete a business-related text.
However, a thorny issue arises when someone refuses to turn over their private device. That’s a legal issue pitting property rights and public record law that has yet to be hashed out in the courts, according to Nancy Krier, the public records ombudsman for the Attorney General’s Office. Because of this, agencies should limit the use of private devices for public business until legal precedents have been established.
Education is also imperative, which is why it’s important for the Washington Legislature to adopt two public-records training bills.
Senate Bill 5964 would require the training of relevant government employees in the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act within 90 days of assuming office. The training, to be provided by the Attorney General’s Office, would be renewed every four years. House Bill 2121 would also apply the training to state legislators. Each chamber easily passed its version. We prefer the House’s.
The proliferation of gadgets does complicate transparency, but if public officials are committed to open government, technology need not undermine it.