This Florida newspaper sued for a city manager's text messages and won a bigger public records victory

Early this month, Tallahassee’s City Commission approved a settlement with The Tallahassee Democrat in a case that adds a new layer of sunshine to that city’s local government.

The settlement comes as a result of a lawsuit the Democrat, part of the USA Today Network, filed after getting ahold of text messages it had requested from the city manager. The city denied that the texts even existed, and said it wasn’t preserving text messages from public officials, even though Florida’s Sunshine Law requires that it does just that.

When Democrat reporters got hold of the messages, the newspaper pushed ahead not just with the story, but with a case it knew it could win.

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“You hear a lot about smoking guns and bombshells in today’s media climate, but this really was both of those things. It had immediate impact,” editor William Hatfield said of the texts.

Those texts, which the Democrat knew about thanks to a tip that followed previous reporting on an FBI investigation into corruption in the city, included the city manager asking a lobbyist for free luxury skybox tickets to a college football game.

The Democrat's attorneys "immediately saw that this was a case that could essentially reshape the Sunshine Law, the way public records are shared,” Hatfield said, helping shine a light on how business is now conducted out of the public’s view.

The result: The city settled, paid the Democrat’s legal fees and has created new policies for preserving text messages. It’s a change that could be a model for other states.

“The precedents do matter for other states, so I do think that it’s significant,” said Max Galka, the founder of FOIA Mapper, a tool that shows what FOIAs can do. “To what degree it’s going to matter, I don’t know, but it is a promising development.”

There are a few lessons from their success for other newsrooms. The first – the foundations of journalism still work.

In this case, a records request actually helped the Democrat find the story that led to the lawsuit and change.

Investigative reporters Jeff Burlew and Jeffrey Schweers (fondly known as “the Jeffs,” Hatfield said,) spent months covering the FBI’s investigation into corruption in the city. Burlew requested the application and job interview video of the agent in charge who later became president of the Florida Bar Association. In those records, the agent laid out details of the case.

There were a lot of rabbit holes to go down from there, Hatfield said. One of them led the reporters to the city manager. The reporters got a tip that he’d solicited football tickets, which the city manager denied.

“For a while it kind of ended there,” Hatfield said.

But the Jeffs kept reporting and building relationships with their sources. And that led them to the missing text messages.

“It helps if you’ve got reporting that essentially makes your issue a slam dunk, instead of suing in the dark," said Skip Foster, the Democrat’s president and publisher. 

A second lesson: You have to pick your shots these days.

“The biggest thing In journalism right now is it’s is all about priorities," Hatfield said. "There are so many shiny objects. When all of this came down, the Democrat’s leadership team said this is a priority.”

Another: “I’ve learned it helps if you have a good lawyer,” Foster said.

Galka suspects that most government agencies don’t have systems in place to save text messages. That makes it pretty easy for them to claim those records don’t exist. It’s hard enough to get emails, which do have systems in place to preserve them, he said.

He hopes that more agencies will consider how they can and should be saving text messages and that more news organizations will file lawsuits when those agencies claim no texts exist.

“If more lawsuits started coming out like this, I think that would be an extremely positive development for FOIA.”

There's one more lesson for journalists from the settlement, Hatfield said. Ask for those text messages, and be explicit about it. Everyone communicates now with texts.

If you get records back and they don't include texts, he said, "ask why."

Correction: The Democrat sued for the city manager's texts. An earlier version of the headline said he was a politician. 

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