****UPDATED 5/16/2015 Repub Mayor LaRaza Stothert RUNS FROM MEDIA over TEXTS…
“If there’s communications back and forth between government officials as to the operations of government, those should be made available through the public information request,” said Peterson. (NE Atty. Gen) When KMTV reporter Rebekah Rae approached the mayor to get her response, Stothert refused to roll down her car window and had her driver escort her away…. http://www.scrippsmedia.com/kmtv/news/Attorney-General-Weighs-In-On-Mayors-Texts-303942571.html
“I have nothing to hide,” she said….Stothert said she deletes text messages at the end of every day. ..Last week, Stothert continued to delete messages after the newspaper made the records request….In Nebraska, the open records law, which was last amended in 2000, says that all records and documents of a government entity, regardless of physical form, should be public. The law applies to the State of Nebraska and all its many government subdivisions, including municipalities…“I believe in transparent government organizations,” she wrote in a letter to the MECA board chairman last month. “We cannot pick and choose or make exceptions about public information when we are spending the taxpayer’s money.”…….Full STORY: http://www.omaha.com/news/metro/mayor-stothert-s-use-of-text-messages-raises-public-records/article_e0f65730-bcd9-59b1-95ea-b6175dc447c3.html
Mayor Stothert’s use of text messages raises public records concerns
Link to actual Text Messages in order see all of them you have to click on the actual smaller text icons: http://www.omaha.com/read-the-messages-texts-between-omaha-politicians/collection_19d57e3c-e710-11e4-bea2-bbfe116551fb.html
Dozens of people came to Omaha City Hall a couple of weeks ago to hear a public discussion about how the city can direct more jobs to high-poverty areas. It was their chance to directly and publicly speak to the City Council about a controversial ordinance.
That day, Mayor Jean Stothert also made her opinions known to the council. But not from the podium.
Stothert sent the ordinance sponsor, Councilman Chris Jerram, a text message asking if he would delay his proposal. “You told me – you would table it. What is the reality of this?”
Jerram responded, also via text message. “Nothing has changed.” He added that if the mayor agreed to part of his plan, he’d back off the rest. “You have not agreed to the pilot yet so the ordinance continues.”
“Are you kidding me?” Stothert fired back. “Blackmail Chris?”
And they continued to trade heated text messages during the meeting and after.
As a method of communication, texting has become a common practice among Omaha city leaders. City business is increasingly conducted by text message, particularly by Stothert — who has garnered a reputation as a frequent texter.
Councilman Franklin Thompson, a fellow Republican and a close ally of the mayor, said Stothert has texted him during council meetings. He described texts that contain both positive and negative interactions.
“She texts most people, I think, when she’s unhappy,” he said. “That’s just her style. And it’s a style that’s different from the other mayors.”
The rise in texting raises open-government questions; Stothert has promised to bring more transparency to Omaha City Hall.
The text messages exist in an electronic world outside city government’s public email servers. Stothert said she deletes text messages at the end of every day. The city attorney doubts that the text messages — which are on elected officials’ private phones — are public records.
Now a discussion has begun among Omaha city officials over the practice.
[ Read the messages: Texts from Omaha politicians provided to The World-Herald ]
Stothert, who uses her own phone for city business, said she considers the text messages private and sees them as a substitute for a phone call, rather than email. Still, she allowed The World-Herald on Thursday to review her city-related text messages from that day.
“I have nothing to hide,” she said.
The World-Herald submitted a public records request last week to review correspondence that is being sent via texts by the mayor or City Council members.
Most council members, including Jerram, allowed The World-Herald to review their text messages.
There’s no question that — with few exceptions — government-related emails or letters between officials are a part of the public record, and anyone can file a request to review that correspondence.
City Attorney Paul Kratz said that he’s not sure whether text messages are public records that must be disclosed, even if elected officials are conducting public business.
“We are still researching the legal issues and the recoverability of text messages pursuant to your records request,” he said in an email Friday. “We should be able to respond next week.”
But John Bender, who teaches media law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that if city-related text messages aren’t a public record, they should be.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the public records law applies to any records, no matter what physical form they’re in,” he said.
City Clerk Buster Brown, whose job includes maintaining City of Omaha records, was among the officials brought into the discussion last week. He said he has encouraged officials to communicate through email rather than text message so the record can be preserved. The city automatically saves emails, so even if an official deletes a message, the record is stored on city servers.
Stothert and some council members questioned the logistics of releasing text messages that are stored on their personal cellphones. They said they should be allowed to have an expectation of privacy for texts with their children or spouse, for example.
Public record laws are intended to allow citizens access to important information about how government operates.
A similar issue came up nationally recently when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton disclosed that when she was Secretary of State she used a personal email address to do government business. Clinton ended up voluntarily releasing 55,000 emails to the State Department.
Most other states don’t specify whether text messages are public records, said Pam Greenberg, an expert on information technology from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas and Georgia are the exceptions: Their laws explicitly say that text messages can be public information.
In Nebraska, the open records law, which was last amended in 2000, says that all records and documents of a government entity, regardless of physical form, should be public. The law applies to the State of Nebraska and all its many government subdivisions, including municipalities.
There are some exceptions, such as records that contain medical information, trade secrets or attorney-client communications.
Stothert and the council members don’t have city-issued phones — they’re sending these texts from their private cellphones.
An assistant attorney general has previously advised that if officials conduct government business through private email, those records could still be public.
“A key question in determining whether any particular record is a public record is not where the record is located, but rather whether that record is a record ‘of or belonging to the government,’ ” wrote Dale Comer in a 2012 letter about a dispute between the Beatrice Daily Sun and the Gage County Board.
In response to a query from The World-Herald about whether text messages are public records, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office issued a statement: “We believe that text messages are public records if they are of or belonging to the State of Nebraska and pertain to public business.”
Stothert often says that she’s committed to conducting government transparently.
For instance, she has pushed the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, the nonprofit group that manages the CenturyLink Center and TD Ameritrade Park, to release more information about its operations.
“I believe in transparent government organizations,” she wrote in a letter to the MECA board chairman last month. “We cannot pick and choose or make exceptions about public information when we are spending the taxpayer’s money.”
Stothert also said she has worked to make herself more available to the media and the public than her recent predecessors.
Stothert said she has previously asked Kratz to review whether text messages would be public and to explore whether the city needs a clear policy.
She said that she prefers to talk to people face-to-face or by phone, but when she can’t do that, she uses text messaging for the convenience. She said she generally conducts routine matters such as scheduling via text message.
“I’m not using it to do major city business,” she said.
Her texts often start early in the morning and continue at night. She said she will often have a thought she wants to share but doesn’t want to wake someone up with a phone call.
Stothert said she deletes messages at the end of the day because she sees them as “unimportant.”
“It’s not like there’s this big secret argument going on all the time,” she said.
The text messages she provided Thursday were generally routine. The texts included discussions with staffers about the logistics of a press conference and an exchange with U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse about being the commencement speaker at Midland University. She texted Police Chief Todd Schmaderer to ask about an update of a case.
She said she would be comfortable routinely providing the public with text messages that she has sent. But she would balk at showing others’ texts to her, saying that would be a “betrayal” of confidentiality.
Last week, Stothert continued to delete messages after the newspaper made the records request. Stothert said she was unaware of the newspaper’s request for her texts, though she had discussed with Kratz that he planned to research whether text messages would be public records. Both Stothert and Kratz said that he did not recommend that she stop deleting texts.
On the council side, most council members expressed a willingness to comply with the request.
One council member, Garry Gernandt, said he deletes text messages and didn’t have any such messages on his phone.
Three council members — Jerram, Pete Festersen and Ben Gray — agreed to comply within a day and provided The World-Herald with copies of their text messages.
“It’s public record,” Jerram said. “It’s city business.”
Friday, Councilwoman Aimee Melton allowed The World-Herald to review her messages on her phone. The same day, Councilman Rich Pahls agreed to do the same.
But Councilman Franklin Thompson said he wouldn’t provide access to his city texts unless he was told to do so by a lawyer or ordered by a judge. Later he said he contacted Verizon and was told that the company would not provide him a transcript of his text messages without a subpoena.
Melton said she would like to see the issue clarified so everyone, especially constituents, knows the rules.
“We probably need to have a policy in place that we all know, whether these are public records or not,” Melton said.
The council members’ text messages show that they generally send texts about routine matters or logistical planning. The texts show that council members have discussed some major city issues, most notably Jerram’s proposal about city contractors, which is still pending before the council.
Stothert’s texts with Melton — and their shared texts with fellow Republicans Pahls and Thompson — show a more collegial relationship than she shares with the Democrats.
The four share thoughts about city issues and impressions of City Hall happenings.
Stothert occasionally lobbies the Republican council members, including asking them to support a resolution condemning State Sen. Ernie Chambers.
The four spoke about their disagreement with Jerram’s north Omaha jobs ordinance. Melton, an attorney, said she considers it unconstitutional.
Democrats, however, have shared the occasional pointed remark about Stothert. At one point, for example, Gray used the word “petty” to describe Stothert’s action.
During their jobs discussion, Jerram called Stothert “Sneaky Jean.” She said he is “one rude, insulting man.”
As the council was conducting the public hearing on Jerram’s ordinance, Stothert texted the council Republicans: “OMG! This is ridiculous.”
Festersen said it’s inappropriate for the mayor to text council members during public meetings.
Bender, the UNL professor, suggested that texting during council meetings could violate the state’s open meetings law, which is intended to ensure that discussion about legislation takes place in an open forum.
Stothert said council members also occasionally send her a text during council meetings, often to ask what she thinks of a particular issue.
She acknowledged that she disagreed with Jerram through texts and said she’s comfortable with how she expressed it.
“I would tell Chris Jerram in front of you that I was unhappy,” she said.
Jerram said the mayor texts him frequently and often aggressively.
“They come in barrages. It’ll be this and that and this and that,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t know how she has time to text like that.”
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