The Kitsap Sun recently reported that on October 28, 2009, the Kitsap County Parks and Recreation Department’s blog (launched September 8, 2009 and hosted on a County intern’s Facebook site) was taken down. According to the article, the decision to take the blog down stemmed partially from the electronic records management advisory issued by the Secretary of State’s office. See our November 4, 2009 blog posting for more information regarding the advisory. The other reasons cited include the need to update the County’s communication policy to cover statements made by employees on third-party sites and the County’s information technology systems so the County can track records created through various social media.

Kitsap County’s decision follows a similar decision made by Alachua County in Florida. According to the Gainesville Sun, Alachua County recently put a ban on staff conducting any county business using text messages – whether using a county-issued cellular phone or a personal cell phone. The reason cited for the ban is the fact that text messages are public records and the county’s computer system has no way to track and save the messages.

A ‘Tweet’ OPMA violation?

Public perception counts, technical compliance may not be sufficient. Web 2.0 creates risks and challenges.

‘Tweets’ bring possible illegal meeting to light. 
Twitter Post reveal a gathering of Mukilteo
City Council members after their official meeting.

Headlines like this recent headline in the Everett Herald hurt public trust, even when no laws are broken.  A post on the Open Records Blog (scroll down to the third post) demonstrates how at least some members of the public will react.

To ensure compliance with the OPMA, the Public Records Act and the retention laws, elected officials and public employees must make sure they understand all of their legal requirements before they use Web 2.0 sites.

Here are some additional resources on the use of Web 2.0 sites by Elected officials and public employees:

City Council Handbook Wiki

Gov Social Media Wiki

As illustrated  in this Everett Herald story, a Mukilteo councilmember’s micro-blog serves to remind us about a lesson public officers and employees have been told for decades.

Common Sense Advice Over the Decades

1969: Don’t write anything down that you don’t want to see on the front page of the paper.

1979: Don’t record anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the paper.

1989: Don’t put anything in an email you don’t want to see on the front page of the paper.

1999: Don’t take pictures of anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the paper.

2009: Don’t tweet or post anything you don’t want to see on the front page.

Emails allow an increased level of public access to government decision-making because many issues are resolved in email exchanges that 20 years ago would have been addressed in person or over the phone. These same emails, however, sometimes reveal embarrassing information.   Example A:  the scandal related to South Carolina Governor Sanford’s affair.  For more see the posts on the Death by Email blog

Not surprisingly, the newspaper that broke the story, the State, has made an extensive public records requests to the Governor’s office. What is surprising, however, is that some of the more recent embarrassing emails show media outlets pledging support for the governor when the stories first broke that he had gone missing: Great Call: In Emails To Sanford’s Office, Right-Wing Media Dismissed Missing Gov Story

It’s not uncommon for members of the public unaware of the scope of the public records laws, to be embarrassed when their email to their elected official is made public.  But this is the first example I’ve seen of the media being embarrassed because they forgot about the public records laws.