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Council pens text messaging archive deal following public disclosure filing

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Fife City Council approved a contract July 14 that will have a third party tech company archiving text messages to and from city-owned cell phones.

The contract comes after the city lost a lawsuit earlier this year for failing to turn over unredacted documents to a Fife police officer who was seeking information about the former police chief’s abrupt decision to resign just as the city manager was also set to leave.

Fife turned over documents and audio recordings pertaining to a series of investigations into various allegations about misconduct within the police department dating back five years. Text messages were not included, however. Some of the documents also had names redacted under the argument of attorney-client privilege.

The city first challenged the request for that information to the Pierce County Superior Court and then the state Court of Appeals, which both affirmed the city violated the state’s Public Disclosure Act and ordered the release of the records.

Fife failed to release the text message records because city officials falsely believed their contract with their cell phone carrier included text archiving. It did not.

The new contract fills that gap for future requests.

The city’s texting policy does not allow for any discussion of policies and city actions but does allow messages of a transitory nature, such as “let’s meet in City Hall” or “running a few minutes late.”

“In checking with the state governments agencies and several local jurisdictions, the storage and retention of text messages have not been something that were looked at from a retention point of view,” a staff report stated. “However, like email messages text message fall under the Public Records Act, and therefore must be retained based on the required retention schedule.”

The city opted to use a third party, cloud-based service called Smarsh that will capture and retain all incoming and outgoing text messages on city-owned mobile devices. The city’s cell contract covers 100 mobile devices, of which 75 use text messaging. The remaining 25 mobile devices will have text message features disabled.

The text archiving service will cost $4.50 per mobile device per month, which came down from $10 a month per phone through a negotiation between the vendor and the Association of County and City Information Systems, which means other cities are preparing to follow suit.

“This is a new area for all local governments,” City Manager Subir Mukerjee said.

Fife has also added a full-time public disclosure position at a cost of about $75,000 in salary and benefits to handle document requests. Some 133 records requests of all sorts have been received so far this year.

The text archiving contract and the rising costs of handling requests for information under the state’s Public Disclosure Act prompted Deputy Mayor Pat Hulcey to lash out against state lawmakers passing broad disclosure laws cities must follow without money to do it or even following the same rules.

“If no one else wants to talk about it, I don’t really care,” he said. “I think it is an abuse of public funds that we have to comply with this and they don’t. They need to apply this law to themselves just like it applies to us.”

In other city action:

-- Fife City Council held a public hearing regarding a proposed ordinance on temporary homeless encampments within the city. No one from the public commented during the hearing, which outlined the process churches or groups would have to follow to allow for “tent cities” on their property, a requirement outlined in recent state law.

“Assisting the homeless is a fully protected exercise of religion per state and federal constitutions as well as the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” the staff report stated. “Local jurisdictions may impose reasonable and nondiscriminatory permitting requirements related to public health, safety and welfare upon religious land uses.”

Fife’s ordinance, which is set for approval as early as July 28, would allow a homeless encampment on any property owned or controlled by a religious organization in any zoning district, as long as a permit is issued. Permits require public notification, background checks of residents, time limits of no more than 90 days per calendar year as well as safety, building, sanitary, security and human service accommodations.

“Municipalities in the South Sound indicate that the ordinance has been a helpful tool to prevent unsafe encampments and provide minimum standard guidance to local congregations who may decide to consider hosting a future homeless encampment,” according to the staff report.

Tacoma passed a similar homeless encampment ordinance last year but has not actually received any permit application to form one.

-- The City of Fife donated a surplus 1992 Ford Taurus Sedan to the Fife School District for the school’s Drivers Education Program. The car had been used by the police and Public Works staffers.

The donation came after Councilmember Barry Johnson learned earlier this year that the Drivers Education Program needed a car to continue the program because its vehicle was old. The program hinged on obtaining vehicles for future training because state funding for drivers education programs around Washington ended a decade ago. The city department was set to retire the car anyway, so now the car can continue to serve Fife residents for a few more years.