Tacoma, Wash., Struggles with Text Message Retention

Saving mobile communications from personal devices is a challenge for the Pacific Northwest city.

by / September 22, 2014

Add Tacoma, Wash., to the list of municipalities grappling with how to retain text messages and other government business communications when sent through personal mobile devices.

The News Tribune reported that Tacoma doesn't have a consistent policy in place to preserve and disclose text messages sent by officials. That could pose a problem for the city, as the Washington state Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that business-related call records and text messages were subject to disclosure regardless of whether the the communications took place on a personal or government-owned device.

Tacoma isn't alone in its struggles: Recently a number of local and state governments have been dealing with the issue of text message retainment.

For example, employees of the state of Maine were allegedly using their personal smartphones to avoid texts being captured by public-records law. That triggered a response by Gov. Paul LePage, who outlawed texting to conduct any state business. In addition, Norfolk, Va., was sued by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) earlier this year for not retaining text messages of city council members.

The issue came to light in Tacoma this month, when The News Tribune received a variety of text messages in response to a public records request. Going through the records, the publication noted that while some messages from city council members were responses to reporters, others were between city leaders directly on city business.

Further investigation by The News Tribune revealed that some city officials had deleted their texts off personal cellphones, and records showed reporting of texts by those officials to be random. Tacoma City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli told The News Tribune that the city doesn't have a consistent method of retrieving or storing texts, but it's working on it.

“We haven't historically had a process for that because people weren't historically texting,” Pauli said. “As you know, there's no easy way to do retention on that. It's a continuing discussion within the city and between cities on how to ensure those things.”