Orange Mayor Jacobs proposes major texting, lobbying reforms
Jan 10, 2013 (Orlando Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
In the midst of the textgate scandal, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs today proposed major reforms in lobbying and texting rules that she said would be some of the toughest in the country.
Jacobs said she will ask the County Commission next week to prohibit lobbying via text message and voicemail altogether, and end the use of doing public business on personal email accounts.
"I want to ensure that our government operates as openly and transparently as possible," Jacobs said in a news release. "The recent furor over text messages from lobbyists during public hearings brought to light the need to update our policies to keep pace with the latest communications tools and customs."
The mayor also wants to require all lobbyists to log all contacts with the mayor or commissioners within seven days of the conversation.
The proposals are scheduled to be discussed by the commission on Tuesday.
It's not clear that the measures will be adopted.
"It's crap," said Commissioner Fred Brummer of the mayor's proposals, adding that existing open records laws, when observed, are adequate. "It suggests either we are incapable or purposefully trying to get around the law."
The mayor's move comes after several top Orange County officials deleted texts with lobbyists or foes of a paid sick-time referendum on Sept. 11, the day the commission blocked it from going to voters. Backers of the initiative have sued the county, contending some officials may have violated open-records and open-meeting laws.
Jacobs was among those who deleted texts from sick time foes, although she later recovered them from her personal and county-issues phones and released what she regarded as any public records contained among them.
The mayor's Chief of Staff Graciela Noriega Jacoby has also been unable to turn over weeks worth of text records from her personal phone. The mayor's top adviser has said she lost them on Sept. 21 -- one week after her records were requested -- during a system upgrade to her personal mobile device, and despite several attempts, has been unable to recover them.
Brummer, too, has deleted weeks worth of texts from his mobile device, including a dozen with a trio of lobbyists on the day he voted with three other commissioners to keep the sick time ballot measure off the Nov. 6 ballot.
A 2010 Florida attorney general's opinion says text messages in the conduct of public business are public records that must be archived. But Brummer has said previously that he's not convinced that opinion is settled law.
Brummer said today that he was not completely aware of that opinion around the time of the sick time vote, and it had always been his personal policy then to delete all texts from his own phone. The Apopka accountant said he continued to delete texts up into October, but he's not certain if any public records were among them.
In Jacobs' first attempt at text reforms in October, she said the county should better maintain cellphone records and consider curbing electronic discussions during meetings. The October call fell flat among open-government experts, who said it largely mirrored existing state law.
Since the Sept. 11 vote to shelve the ballot referendum on sick time -- which if approved would require many employers to offer sick pay -- the county has been dealing with a rash of records requests for emails and texts that might shed light on how the measure was delayed.
The release of those records, which have trickled out, revealed that each of the four commissioners who voted for the delay had exchanged text messages with lobbyists opposed to sick time during the Sept. 11 meeting.
Of those four -- Scott Boyd, Brummer, Jennifer Thompson and former Commissioner John Martinez -- only Boyd has said he turned over all of the deleted messages. The others say they can't recover them.
Brummer said he and the others were wrong to erase any personal phone messages dealing with public business, and it was "impolite" to share texts with lobbyists during meetings. But he says "we're responsible people" and the mayor's proposals are not needed.
"It's just pandering," Brummer said, adding that Jacobs "is nervous and upset about what's happening. She's trying to overdo it in an area where's she's made a dreadful error."
A leader in Citizens for a Greater Orange County, the group behind the sick-time measure, said the mayor is "proposing an honor system for people who've already acted dishonorably."
"The public should be more concerned with accountability than policy," said Citizens leader Stephanie Porta. The mayor should find out what happened around the Sept. 11 vote and "call for the state attorney or attorney general to open an investigation," she said.
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