NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - In our world of rapidly evolving technology, how we communicate with each other is changing more quickly than public records laws that govern the communication of public officials. Generally speaking, written correspondence to and from public officials is a matter of public record.
It's widely understood that letters and emails sent to conduct public business are public record. To help facilitate your access to those records, some local agencies including New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington have public servers you can use to search these emails.
But in 2017, many of us send text messages as often, or even more often, than we email. So WECT submitted public records requests to New Hanover County Commissioners and Wilmington City Council for all text messages relating to public business sent during a two-week time frame in January.
With the exception of Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, all commissioners responded to our request.
Chairman Woody White, along with Commissioners Pat Kusek and Skip Watkins, said they did not send any texts that met this criteria during the requested time frame.
We sent a follow-up email to the county questioning the likelihood that none of the commissioners sent any county related text messages, since it is such a prevalent form of communication.
In response, Commissioner Rob Zapple called us to explain that while he does send and receive very basic county-related text messages, like 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.
County Manager Chris Coudriet supports Zapple's handling of the messages and says it is in keeping with county policy.
"Some might argue that's conducting county business. I'm not sure I support that, so in that context we wouldn't preserve that and wouldn't feel necessary to preserve that," Coudriet explained.
He further noted that because there is not an easy or efficient way to capture and preserve text messages county-wide, they advise county officials to avoid text messaging for any substantive matters.
"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.
State public records laws allow officials to destroy correspondence once it has no further administrative value, such as a message about the time and place of a meeting that has already happened.
The response from the City of Wilmington was similar. With the exception of Councilman Paul Lawler, the mayor and other members of council said they did not send any city-related texts during the time period in question.
Lawler reported sending a single text, sharing a picture of signs he had seen in another city honoring veterans, and suggesting Wilmington make similar signs.
Because there is no server or other mechanism that independently captures the text messages of local leaders, we must rely on their goodwill to voluntarily share any of their texts that may pertain to public business.
The response from public officials in Southeastern North Carolina was different than responses received by other news outlets across the state participating in this Sunshine Week project.
Wake County Officials told WRAL it was the first time they had ever been asked for copies of their text messages. After working out the technical issues of how to best capture and share the text messages, county commissioners compiled screen grabs of dozens of relevant messages and sent them to WRAL electronically.
Most were basic messages about meeting details, but there were a handful of messages Wake Commissioners shared about more substantial issues, like redistricting issues in Morrisville, an ongoing beef with the Wake County Sheriff, and a text seeming to disparage "Antienvironmental GOPers".
Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson said he was surprised to have his texts made public, but he did not have a problem with the public reading any of his communication that pertained to public business.
While it was a new issue in Wake County, the text messages of public officials has been a topic of discussion before in New Hanover County. The first time we are aware of it coming up was in 2014 when text messages sent by then County Commissioner Brian Berger were used in the effort to remove him from office.
New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet says texting to discuss county business is discouraged, but the county will continue to monitor prevalent forms of communication as technology evolves, and update their policies as needed. They also remain cognizant that anything they put in writing in any format is subject to public view.
"The standards and the expectations if you are an employee of New Hanover County, whether you like it as an individual or not, what you say and what you do are subject to being communicated to the public, so be thoughtful, be cautious and be careful of what you do and how you say it," Coudriet said.