County to consider rules on texting by commissioners

Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.

A criminal investigation into Orange County’s so-called “textgate” scandal has prompted the Alachua County Commission to evaluate its texting policy.

The Orange County Commission has faced public scorn since the revelation that several commissioners exchanged texts with lobbyists regarding a sick-pay initiative that would have required many employers to offer paid sick time to their workers. The measure was voted down last September, preventing it from coming before voters on the ballot.

In late January, a state attorney requested that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate possible criminal violations among county leaders.

Alachua County Attorney Dave Wagner broached the subject with commissioners during a Tuesday policy meeting in light of the Orange County controversy. He plans to bring the issue before the board again at its Feb. 26 meeting.

Although people use texting as a transitory way of communicating similar to making a phone call, text messages are considered public records under Florida law, Wagner pointed out.

County employees who work for the commission are prohibited from texting about government business, but there is no text messaging policy for commissioners themselves.

Wagner told the commission he thinks it needs a policy for its members. Some possibilities included a similar ban on county-related texting, forwarding all such texts to an archive like the one it has for commissioner emails, or having each board member be personally responsible for saving county-related texts.

“I think a policy that is depending on a human being to do something all the time is going to have the potential to make the county vulnerable,” he said.

County employees can either receive a county-provided cellphone or a money allowance to cover work-related use of their personal phones. Whether they use a personal or government-distributed phone, they aren’t supposed to text about work, he said. But bans may not be effective.

“We know for a fact that county employees with county-provided cellphones are occasionally and inadvertently sending text messages,” Wagner told the board.

There is no evidence employees have used personal cellphones to send work-related texts, but it’s likely some of them have, given how often people communicate via text message these days, he said.

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said at the meeting that a ban on employee texting makes the government less efficient, considering people send work-related texts constantly in the corporate and nonprofit worlds. He also pointed out that he can’t control who texts him.

In a later interview, Commissioner Susan Baird agreed a blanket no-texting policy for employees is “overkill” and damages productivity.

“It just seems like it’s going to do more harm than good in terms of productivity and communication,” she said.

Baird also said she doesn’t think texting is an issue for Alachua County, as it has been for Orange County, but could be worth addressing regardless.

She likened texting to a shortened telephone call that lets you get to the point without exchanging niceties or waiting until you’re both available to talk. Establishing stringent rules can be an overreach of policy, especially since it’s impossible to safeguard against all forms of corruption. If texting is banned, someone would just use another way to conduct illicit communications, such as by calling a lobbyist.

“Do you then have to record every single phone call that you make?” Baird asked.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or

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