Parnell administration defends practice of not keeping text messages

Governor Sean Parnell’s administration is standing by its practice not to preserve or make public any information sent or received as cell phone text messages.

A former Parnell staffer told the Anchorage Daily News more than a month ago that the administration routinely uses text messages to avoid public disclosure rules.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Hollis French on Thursday released a legal opinion by a legislative lawyer that seems to call the practice into question.

Attorney Dan Wayne’s memo says state law defines public records as “books, papers, files, accounts, [and] writings … regardless of format or physical characteristics.”

French says technology doesn’t matter in the view of the law.

“The public expects that written records, in whatever form they take place – whether it’s a Facebook message, email, a text message – should be saved so they can reveal the work of their government. That’s the idea, and as technology changes, we just have to make sure that the law stays abreast of those changes,” French says.

Parnell Spokeswoman Sharon Leighow disputed via email the claim that text messages need to be preserved as public records.

“Text messages are transitory and are not saved,” Leighow wrote. “The administration does not consider text messages public records.”

French says that’s an unfortunate interpretation of an increasingly common means of communications.

“More and more people are going to text messaging. It’s functionally identical to an e-mail. So, I think the governor and his staff should rethink their position,” he says.

The Alaska Supreme Court is expected to weigh in – indirectly – on the dispute when it issues a decision on whether state business transacted on private email accounts is subject to the state’s Public Records Act.