Articles

City Texts at Center of Forensic Investigation

The handling of text messages through Venice city cellphones has prompted an investigation under Florida’s Sunshine Law.

by Earle Kimel, Sarasota Herald-Tribune / October 9, 2017

(TNS) -- VENICE — A firm specializing in forensic data retrieval will examine the cellphones of all city employees — both city issued and personal — as the city of Venice attempts to comply with a public records request from from paralegal Michael Barfield, a Sunshine Law specialist.

Barfield, who works on Florida open government cases under the state's Sunshine Law with Sarasota attorney Andrea Mogensen, uncovered a flaw in the way the city of Venice handles text messages after filing a public records request on behalf of a client seeking texts from code enforcement employees.

Because the city did not have the capability of capturing texts on city phones, employees were forbidden from texting, in response to a 2009 settlement in an open records case for Anthony Lorenzo and Citizens for Sunshine Inc. vs. City of Venice.

Barfield was working for the owners of McLeod Recycling Yard — currently involved in a code enforcement dispute with the city over its concrete recycling operation at 700 Gene Green Road in northeast Venice — to help with a request filed on its behalf in May. He found that city cellphone bills showed texting activity, starting in January 2016.

There was "text activity going back and forth for several employees in the code enforcement department," said Barfield, who expanded the public records request in July to include all texting activity by city employees, public officials and appointed board members from January 2016 to the present. "Texting has occurred willy-nilly within the city by both employees, elected officials, as well as appointed officials."

To fulfill that request, The Sylint Group, a Sarasota cyber security company, will examine 145 city-issued phones, as well as personal employee cellphones, starting Monday.

Barfield said he's waiting to learn who removed the block against city employee texts and why, but added that it's "important to me that all these public records are floating out there in the ether and there was a presumption that 'don't bother seeking records from the city of Venice on text messages because they don't text.'"

"That's a huge concern to me, from a transparency point of view," he added.

City Information Systems Director Jeff Bolen said the city has always asked its cell provider, Verizon, to block the ability of city phones to send SMS texts — it can't block the reception of texts. All texts received — including spam texts — would show up on a Verizon bill.

The city handles the blocking of Apple's proprietary iMessage texting through a Cisco networking product, Meraki.

"So, when we were pushing out phones, we were disabling messaging always," Bolen said.

In January, the city started a refreshment cycle with Verizon for new phones. Most city employees are issued iPhones purchased at a discount on a government contract — currently the city can buy the iPhone 6S for 99 cents each.

"When we refreshed the phones in January, that's when Verizon didn't kill the texting on those new phones," Bolen said.

Since that was discovered, Bolen said Verizon has been contacted again, "and we made sure we turned everything off."

During the January 2017 phone refresh, the city was installing an app from a Portland, Oregon-based company, Smarsh, that would allow it to archive text messages and lift the prohibition against employee texting.

"We tested the system; we know it works," Bolen said. "All that now has been put on hold because of this public records request."

Meanwhile Steven Chase, a special counsel the city retained to handle the public records issue, is reviewing texts recovered for the initial request — texts by code enforcement employees, as well as at least one member of the engineering department — prior to their release.

The code enforcement violation case against McLeod Recycling — essentially for operating without an approved site development plan — was recently continued to December.

In September the Venice Planning Commission denied approval of McLeod's site plan, which is being appealed to the Venice City Council in November.

Venice City Clerk Lori Stelzer said that she has produced everything requested for McLeod, with the exception of the text messages that showed up on employee phone bills.

Chase noted that while this public records request response is more limited than the one the city had to make in the Lorenzo case — which centered around emails between City Council members as well as appointed board members — "It's still a yeoman's task to acquire all of the text messages to the extent that they're retrievable."

©2017 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.