City to create policy for council members regarding text messages

Following Sunshine Law investigation, inspector general found no policy existed

City of Jacksonville logo and phones (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville City Council president Scott Wilson has directed city staffers to create a policy for retaining text messages sent to council members, following a city investigation.

The Office of Inspector General launched a management review of how City Council members used personal cell phones to conduct city business. The review followed an investigation by the State Attorney’s Office into possible Sunshine Law violations. The office concluded its investigation in February 2019, finding there was not enough evidence to move forward with any criminal charges. The investigation involved an examination of cell phone records between several members of the council.

According to the inspector general’s report, the city does not issue cell phones to council members – rather, council members are given a monetary allowance for the use of their phones. Council members are given ethics training about the restrictions of using personal cell phones for official city business. The training advised council members to not call, text or email other council members on city-related business, saying those discussions must happen in open meeting. The training presentation also instructed council members to retain texts related to city business.

Outside of the training materials, the inspector general’s office didn’t find any City Council rules, policies or procedures detailing the same guidelines, to ensure members follow the state Sunshine Law and public records law.

The management review did reveal city directives about prohibited conduct and retention of text messages. However, they were narrowly focused on contact between council members and certain people, such as union representatives and lobbyists, during City Council or committee meetings.

The inspector general recommended that the city develop some sort of rule, policy, or procedure to ensure council members follow the Sunshine Law and public records laws, when using personal cell phones for city business. In a response this week, Wilson directed the City Council Director to work with city IT personnel to develop a plan for retaining text messages that are public record and sent to personal cell phones. The council’s personnel committee will give final approval to the plan.

The inspector general’s report also recommended that the city determine whether the council should establish a rule allowing for audits of a council member’s personal cell phone records, if they are getting a phone allowance from the city. It also recommended training for council members and their assistants, for any new policies. Wilson’s response to the inspector general did not address these two points.