Like most of us, public officials are text messaging more and more.
It’s a convenient, fast way to communicate that doesn’t require leaving a voicemail or having a drawn-out conversation when you’d rather not have one. You can text while sitting in a boring meeting or leave a message when you know the recipient is otherwise unavailable.
But for public officials, text messages are much more than all that; they’re also public records. And as such, they must be preserved in some way in case someone makes a records request under the state’s Public Records Act.
That’s where some 700 governments in the state — which operate about 88,000 phones — are running into a problem. Apparently many of them were unaware that Verizon, the carrier that contracts with local and regional governments throughout Washington, doesn’t keep text messages very long. That responsibility, Verizon says, is on the government that creates the records. As it should be.
If the agencies didn’t know that before, they should know it now. They need to get into compliance with state law — and fast. They can’t use ignorance as an excuse anymore, and shame on any that are using text messaging instead of emailing as a way to evade public records requests.
Saving text messages isn’t a huge problem. A quick Internet search turns up all sorts of information on how to preserve text messages. And yes, there are several apps for that.
Or just call the City of Bonney Lake, which has been archiving its text messages in a searchable format since 2011.
Bonney Lake had just shifted employees to using smartphones, and realized it needed a way to archive text messages to comply with records requests. In an average month, it receives five requests for text messages. It turned to a Portland-based company, Smarsh, whose motto is “We archive everything.”
This company isn’t a big secret. It archives some combination of email, text messages, social media, instant messages or websites for several public sector customers in Washington besides Bonney Lake, including the cities of Olympia and Pullman and Benton and Clark counties. Customers outside Washington include Maricopa County, Arizona, and the City of Tallahassee, Florida.
Government entities that aren’t preserving text messages have plenty of options for complying with public records law. That also means they have no excuse when requests come in, and they face fines for failure to provide those public documents. The alternative is to forbid their employees from using texts for public business.