As Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson traded text messages with former county school chairman Tom Benton in January, the pair groused about the latest public pronouncement from Sheriff Donnie Harrison.
Benton took exception to Harrison suggesting the Wake County Public School System should create its own police force rather than rely on school resource officers supplied by the sheriff’s office and local police departments.
The “sheriff (is) at it again. Bypass policy makers and go straight to the press,” Benton wrote. Hutchinson replied, “Yep exactly what I talked with him about last time as well.”
Those were among the dozens of messages Hutchinson and other Wake County commissioners sent or received from Jan. 9 through Jan. 20 and released in response to a public records request made by a group of newspapers and television stations organized by the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. The group made similar requests of nine different local governments across North Carolina as well as 19 different state government officials, whose responses are detailed in a separate story.
Text messages fall within the purview of North Carolina’s public records act, which specifies that all “documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films... or other documentary material” produced in relation to public business should be disclosed in response to requests from citizens.
While responding to records requests for email and paper files has become a standard part of doing business for most local governments, inquiries seeking text messages have been less frequent and, for many, harder to fulfill.
“We’re all going, ‘Well, what is this all about?’” Hutchinson said in a recent interview after getting the coalition’s request for his messages.
He quickly came to the conclusion that, while he had never been asked for copies of the short exchanges he sent from his phone to other county officials, they were public records. His biggest question soon became how to turn them over to reporters.
“I was clueless,” Hutchinson said. “It wasn’t hard once you knew how to do it, but I had no idea how to do it.”
Other local public officials were less forthcoming. In Mecklenburg County, for example, commissioners and their staff were not able to produce any text messages during the five weeks between the coalition’s request and the time this report published.
In New Hanover County, all members of the Board of Commissioners responded to the coalition’s request except Jonathan Barfield. County Manager Chris Coudriet said that he discourages commissioners from using text messages because they’re hard to archive.
“Our basic standard is that if we create something, then it in and of itself is a public record, so that’s why we discourage and don’t endorse using text message to conduct county business,” Coudriet said.
Text messages are an efficient mode of communications government and business executives use to arrange impromptu meetings, check on small business details or share a nugget of information such as a phone number. Although it has been around for years, texting has become more widespread along with smart phones with real or virtual keyboards that make tapping out a note easy.
Government transparency advocates, state officials, including Attorney General Josh Stein, and most local officials interviewed for this story said there’s no doubt text messages are public records, even if public officials sometimes treat them as private conversations.
Hutchinson, for example, explained his exchange about the sheriff had to do with a desire to discuss matters internally before speaking to the press.
“We can all improve our communication, internal as well as external,” Hutchinson said. “I encourage the sheriff to work with us. There are solutions here.” (Harrison declined to comment except to affirm that he stands by his statements regarding his officers working in schools.)
That wasn’t the only unguarded exchange among the text messages supplied by Wake County officials.
During one January meeting of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, Wake County’s intergovernmental affairs manager texted Wake County Commissioner John Burns to describe the proceedings as “a cluster,” and the pair went on to critique how the chairperson was managing the proceedings.
Wake County leaders said they are currently updating their public records policy and plan to include text messages. They are also working to streamline the records collection process, improve communications and document tracking between the parties involved. The policy and process revisions should be completed this summer.
Even when text messages are relatively benign, public officials say they struggle finding a good way to share them.
The City of Asheville, for example, responded to requests with images of Mayor Esther Manheimer’s texts rather than searchable copies, which is common with email. Asked about the city’s ability to provide texts, Ben Farmer, a business services specialist with the city manager’s office, confirmed the technical limitations involved.
“The City does not currently have software that would preserve or retrieve text messages,” Farmer said in an email.
At least one local official, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, found a way to load her text messages into Gmail, a popular email service, so they could be provided in response to the coalition’s request.
More than one government agency made clear that, while their elected leaders used text messages on government business, those texts are regularly purged.
New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple explained that, while he does send and receive very basic county-related text messages, such as information on meeting times and places, the messages do not in his opinion rise to the level of conducting county business, and he deletes them after reading them.
Stein, the attorney general, said his office was getting ready to redraft a public records manual that gives guidance to local governments on how to respond to records requests.
“We want to update that guide in light of new technologies so that a county commission can figure out how they can make this work so that everyone is following the law,” he said.
Mark Binker and Kelly Hinchcliffe reported for WRAL News, Kymberli Hagelberg for the News & Record of Greensboro, Ann McAdams for WECT, Doug Miller for The Charlotte Observer, and Frank Taylor for Carolina Public Press.
Additional reporting by Emery P. Dalesio of The Associated Press, Steve Riley of The News & Observer of Raleigh, and Jay Hardy of Time Warner Cable News.
Riley: firstname.lastname@example.org, @SRileyNandO
About this project
This story was reported and written in cooperation with the North Carolina Open Government Coalition as part of Sunshine Week, an annual effort to bring attention to how journalists and citizens use open records and open meetings laws to hold government accountable.
The coalition, based at Elon University, brings together news organizations, government representatives, and others who are interested in educating the public about the benefits of open government and expanding the rights of all citizens to gain access to public documents.