Handful of messages indicate city manager occasionally discussed Sarasota municipal issues
By: Nicole Rodriguez
SARASOTA — Newly released text messages from the personal cell phone of Tom Barwin show the city manager — who has denied conducting city business on his private email account — occasionally sent and received texts discussing city matters.
Barwin’s legal team released more than a dozen text messages Wednesday about city business on the city manager’s personal cell phone, recovered as part of a forensic examination conducted by a Tampa-based company. The company retrieved roughly 17,000 text messages from Barwin’s personal phone dating back to 2012 and determined only 14 were city-related, Barwin’s lawyers told the Herald-Tribune in an email.
The disclosure follows revelations in August that Barwin extensively used his personal Gmail account to conduct city business — a charge Barwin has vehemently refuted. Michael Barfield, a paralegal consultant and president of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, last month filed a lawsuit alleging Barwin’s failure to produce city-related discussions from his private Gmail account as part of numerous public records requests broke the state’s open records laws. Since the suit was filed, lawyers representing Barwin have produced nearly 3,000 emails from Barwin’s personal account that could be considered public records. The messages date back to 2012, when Barwin was appointed city manager.
“Mr. Barwin’s willingness to preserve and download all 17,016 text messages on his two cell phones covering a period of six years demonstrates extraordinary transparency,” Barwin’s Palm Beach-based lawyer, Lloyd Schwed, said in an email Thursday. “And, in our view, the small number of texts that could possibly be interpreted as city-related do not meet Florida’s definition of public records. However, in the interests of full disclosure and transparency, the city manager has asked that we make them available to the public.”
This week’s release shows Barwin sent nine messages to unnamed recipients in 2017 discussing city matters ranging from lines at gas stations as Hurricane Irma barreled toward the state, technical issues with his phone and affordable housing. Barwin received five text messages, also in 2017, from unnamed individuals regarding matters ranging from lift station noise and technical issues with his cell phone. The release only shows phone numbers, not names, of individuals with whom Barwin corresponded.
“Ray, the state and its counties are responsible for mental health and substance abuse services, and as (you) know or should know, 75 percent or more of the chronically homeless have serious afflictions. So start there,” Barwin texted someone on Nov. 26, 2017, in response to a message from an individual inquiring about the homeless problem that the city has grappled with for years.
“Housing is the next problem,” Barwin followed up several minutes later. “I’ve publicly asked that the county waive impact fees to stimulate more affordable (in) very low income housing in the region. The state also has a role there, so include those agencies in your calls and reporting.”
City Spokeswoman Jan Thornburg told the Herald-Tribune six of the texts were to or from a local news reporter, three dealt with Barwin’s broken city-issued cell phone and the five remaining messages were unsolicited text messages Barwin received.
Barfield contends Barwin’s use of personal devices to conduct city business has eroded public trust in local government.
“Another month has passed only to discover Mr. Barwin’s promise to be transparent was a trick, not a treat,” Barfield said of the text messages release. “This drip, drip, drip of producing public records is getting old. When is the commission going to start asking questions?”
Barwin in August read a statement defending himself during a City Commission meeting in which board members remained mum. When reached for comment, commissioners either declined to comment or did not return calls from the Herald-Tribune.
“Both the city of Sarasota and I are strong believers in the importance of Florida’s Sunshine Law, and it has always been our intention to fully comply with any proper and lawful request for public records,” Barwin said at the Aug. 20 meeting. “Any documents covered by the Sunshine Law that have been overlooked will be produced as soon as we can gather them.”
Mayor Liz Alpert, however, when contacted by the Herald-Tribune in August said she doesn’t believe Barwin’s Gmail usage was “nefarious” or warrants a formal review.
“All I can say is that I believe we have one of the best city managers around,” Alpert said at the time. “And there seems to be an attempt to try to undermine him at every turn, and he is doing a really good job, and I have every confidence in his integrity.”
While it is not illegal for government officials to use private email accounts, they must preserve the messages because they are public records. Public officials are urged to use government emails for their official duties so that their conversations are properly archived and available to the public and those conducting oversight. Public records experts have said Barwin’s practice could be perceived as circumvention of state open records laws.
On several occasions dating back to 2013, Barfield requested public records from the city and Barwin on both work and personal devices since Barwin was appointed city manager in 2012, according to the lawsuit. Some, but not all, of the records were produced, the suit states. In June, Barfield again requested the same records and was reportedly told by the city they did not exist. Not complying with Barfield’s previous requests could be public records violations, City Attorney Robert Fournier told the Herald-Tribune in August.
The city manager may have also violated his own policy governing city email use. Barwin failed to forward 101 emails about city-related matters from his personal account to the city server, as required by a city policy that Barwin signed on Feb. 22. Current policy allows city employees to use private email accounts for city business only if they are forwarded to the city server — but penalties for violating the rule are not stipulated.