Jean Stothert, Omaha’s first-term Republican mayor, has frequently texted criticism or approval of City Council members, sometimes while meetings are in progress.
She’s rejected requests to preserve her texts as public records.
Hillary Clinton is under scrutiny for using a private server to store emails while she was secretary of state, and similar issues with public records laws are arising across the country. Only Texas and Georgia today have laws that explicitly classify text messages as public records.
The World-Herald, Omaha’s daily newspaper, claims that the mayor often trades texts, particularly with the four Republicans on the City Council, to share thoughts on issues and to lobby for support during meetings. The council’s Democrats join in the practice as well.
Although most of the politicians claimed to delete their messages every night, several stored messages from their phones obtained by the World-Herald showed a lack of decorum that would be out of place during normal remarks, which are recorded and preserved by the city clerk.
Stothert referred to one councilman as “one rude, insulting man” and reacted to an ordinance announcement during a public hearing by texting her fellow Republicans, “OMG! This is ridiculous.”
Democrats on the council have referred to the mayor as “petty” and called her “Sneaky Jean” in messages to each other.
Both the Nebraska Supreme Court and an assistant Nebraska Attorney General have issued opinions that text messages are public records, whether they are sent from government-issued or personal devices.
But Omaha City Attorney Paul Kratz disagrees, claiming that only a court order, not the city, can compel telecommunications companies to release text messages sent from personal phones. Kratz told the newspaper that it’s unlikely for “a text message with limited character and data capabilities to have such an influence on a public employee or official that it affects the public interest.”
Not everyone views the practice benignly.
John Bender, an instructor of media law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told the World-Herald that the text messages are subject to public records laws.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the public records law applies to any records, no matter what physical form they’re in,” he told the World-Herald.
Bender also said that texts sent during council meetings might violate open meetings laws.
Stothert is unimpressed.
“Will I stop texting? I won’t,” Stothert told the newspaper. “My feelings on it haven’t changed. We’ll be very cautious about what we do. I’ll still do it because it’s more convenient.”
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