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He said, they said: Angry text message exchange among lawmakers raises public records question

Is a contretemps via text a public record?

Public record? What public record?

House Speaker José Oliva and his successor don’t consider a heated text-message exchange with an embattled lawmaker to be state-related business.

But Rep. Mike Hill, a Pensacola Republican who this year was chastised by members of his party for his response to a suggestion that gay people be put to death, did. He turned over the text messages after a public-records request by The News Service of Florida.

The text messages, first reported by POLITICO Florida, show Hill was angered when Oliva and future House Speaker Chris Sprowls issued a joint statement condemning his refusal to push back against a constituent’s suggestion that he sponsor legislation to allow the execution of homosexuals.

“Such callous indifference to an outrageous question is unacceptable, runs contrary to our founding principles, and in no way reflects the beliefs of the Republican caucus in the Florida House,” Oliva and Sprowls said in a statement May 31.

A day later, as Hill drew bipartisan criticism over his response to the constituent’s suggestion, sent a long text message to Oliva and Sprowls.

“You should have called me before you joined the mob,” Hill texted on June 1.

“You need to be more concerned with your own actions before you advise me on mine,” Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, shot back.

The clash came to light because Hill considered the text-message exchange to be a public record under Florida’s Sunshine Law.

By comparison, Oliva and Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican slated to become House speaker after the 2020 elections, said they did not possess any text messages that could be turned over as part of the records request.

Sprowls said he had no text messages to turn over two days after the request was made, while Oliva took 50 days to say there were none.

On Monday, Hill’s office said, “the representative searched his text messages for responsive records” and offered an exchange among the three of them.

When asked about the discrepancy, House spokesman Fred Piccolo said each member has the discretion to determine what record should be archived as a public record.

Piccolo then cited this House rule: “Each member shall ensure compliance with this rule for all records created or received by the members of the member’s office.”

The rule also says the speaker “shall ensure compliance with this rule for all records created or received by their respective offices and their predecessors in office.”

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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