Advice to Wake school board: If in doubt, don't text
Posted October 20, 2010
Raleigh, N.C. — Message to Wake County Board of Education members: Texting the chairman if you can't hold it during a meeting is OK. If you have a comment about an issue, however, say it, don't text it.
At Tuesday's board work session, attorney Ann Majestic told members that the law is not completely clear on what is a public matter and what is not in the wispy, here-now, gone-later world of text messages, but she had some clear advice after getting questions about notes and texting.
On texting, it has replaced "the old-fashioned way" of passing notes during a meeting, the attorney told her clients. Texts could constitute "deliberations" that the board is required to hold in public, and, "That gives me concern," Majestic said.
Open meetings are supposed to let the public see the board's work, she said. She added, however, that notes between members such as "I'm hungry" or "bathroom break" are probably not important, bringing some laughter.
"I get a lot of those!" Chairman Ron Margiotta said.
"Leave your phone off the table. Turn the darned thing off," member Kevin Hill said.
Just as Majestic was beginning her lesson Tuesday, a cell phone somewhere in the committee room was ringing, bringing laughter and making her point about how common cell communications have become.
Majestic said there is no law from court cases in North Carolina about whether elected officials' notes made as personal memory aids are public documents. However, cases from other states "suggest that they are not," she said.
"We don't have an absolute answer in North Carolina," Majestic said, but the UNC School of Government has advised local elected officials that personal notes probably are not public record.
Majestic said that information on laptop computers can be retrieved, and e-mails about board business are public. She has found in other instances, however, that phone companies say text messages cannot be retrieved from their computers if they have been deleted from the user's phone, and that presents a problem about records, especially on members' private phones rather than district-supplied devices.
"When you are at the board table, the benchmark should be that it is public," Majestic said. Messages between members on computer instant-messaging systems or by phone texts "are something we should avoid," she said.
Majestic also reminded the board that she had advised that any board business covered in private-account e-mails should be forwarded to their school board e-mail accounts to assure that it is captured as a public document.