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Dunedin rejects idea to restrict public's access to commissioners' e-mails

DUNEDIN — The City Commission voted 4-1 Thursday to maintain easy public viewing of commissioners' e-mails, rejecting a city attorney's recommendation that they restrict access.

The decision caps debate sparked by city attorney Tom Trask at two City Commission meetings.

Last month, public access to a City Hall computer terminal that the press and public used to view commission and city manager e-mails was shut down after Trask raised concerns about the potential for privacy violations of Florida's open records law.

He said the city could face fines if it revealed items that are exempt from disclosure, such as Social Security numbers, addresses of emergency personnel and medical information.

Citing that risk, Trask said the media and public should instead be required to submit formal requests for specific e-mails they wanted, and those e-mails could then be screened by city staff before they were released.

However, commissioners on Thursday pointed out that they hadn't encountered such information in their e-mail correspondence in the 10 years the city has made e-mails publicly available. Four of the five commissioners decided they wanted public computer access to city e-mails reinstated.

"If we are all properly trained to catch that once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski, "I think that solves the issue."

In casting the lone dissenting vote, Commissioner Julie Scales said she has a strong record of promoting public access and open government but that protecting employees' privacy was worth making the change Trask suggested. "To say we've never had a problem so why should we make this effort is like saying I've never had an accident in 10 years so why should I wear my seat belt," said Scales, who is a former assistant Pinellas County attorney.

The other commissioners said the time and expense of screening all e-mails before allowing public access was a waste of taxpayer money.

Officials said it took a city staffer three hours and multiple reams of paper to print out a week's worth of e-mails to fulfill a recent public records request from the St. Petersburg Times. City Clerk Denise Schlegel told the commission she spent an additional three hours — including at home, after work hours — looking through the e-mails for possible exempt information.

She sent Trask a half-inch stack of printed-out e-mails she thought were possibly questionable. Trask said it took him 15 minutes to review those and redact confidential information from five e-mails.

The time required was a problem for Bujalski and others. "That makes absolutely no sense and I think the people listening out there would think that's a waste of government money," she said.

"That's not acceptable" use of staff time, said Commissioner David Carson, adding that all exempt records might not be caught during the screening process anyway.

Commissioners ultimately voted to reinstate the public computer terminal within 30 days. Meanwhile, they and city staff will be trained on the exemptions to the public records law and urged to not send sensitive information via e-mail.

Commissioners also asked that a statement be attached to the bottom of all city e-mails warning recipients that their information may be subject to public records disclosure.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Dunedin rejects idea to restrict public's access to commissioners' e-mails 07/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 22, 2011 8:56pm]
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