The C is for Crank


By Erica C. Barnett May 13, 2010

This post was originally published yesterday.

Yesterday, I received Seattle City Council Member Mike O'Brien's response to my records request for all text messages sent between him and Mayor Mike McGinn in the days leading up to O'Brien's flip-flop on last month's panhandling vote.

O'Brien's response, like McGinn's, consisted of a single page from O'Brien's cell phone bill.

The sheet shows that O'Brien had sent 20 messages to McGinn over the two days prior to the vote, but does not include any information about the content of those text messages. In an email, city clerk Carol Shenk said O'Brien "did not retain copies of text messages sent or received for this time period" and that the policy of O'Brien's cell-phone company, AT&T, was to delete all message content.

Although the city could argue that the two were not discussing substantive city policy, they did not make that argument in this case—nor could they, given that O'Brien told Seattle Times reporter Emily Heffter explicitly, on the record, that McGinn had lobbied him by text message to change his vote on the panhandling proposal.

Text messages, like emails, are public records subject to public disclosure. They are also becoming more common as a means of communication between elected officials (and reporters). Nonetheless, the city does not have an official policy requiring employees to retain text messages, making texts a way for city officials—intentionally or unintentionally—to skirt public-records law.

The city has had a policy requiring employees to hang on to emails since 1996; it's time for them to adopt a similar policy for text messages as well.
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