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Oldsmar debates public access to City Council e-mails

OLDSMAR — City leaders are mulling over how to provide public access to city officials' e-mails.

A couple of years ago, the city provided a computer where reporters could view virtually all e-mails to and from City Council members.

Mayor Jim Ronecker recently learned that easy access is no longer available.

"I was under the impression the computer up in the clerk's office was for residents and for the press to come and look at our e-mails," Ronecker told City Council members at Tuesday's council meeting. "Unbeknownst to me, about a year, year and a half ago, we changed that policy and I was not aware of it."

City Attorney Tom Trask said he ended that procedure after he discovered it. He told council members he saw a reporter accessing the e-mails and was worried that confidential information or material exempted from disclosure by state public record laws was slipping through.

"We were breaking the law every single day we were doing that," Trask said.

Items that are exempt or confidential include public safety officers' addresses and Social Security numbers, he said.

Last month, a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times began making weekly public records requests for e-mails to and from council members and the city manager. E-mails are public records and are supposed to be accessible to the public unless specifically exempted.

Since the Times made its request, City Clerk Ann Stephan has been providing the records on a weekly basis. She told council members that it takes her 60 to 90 minutes each week to screen the e-mails for exempt or confidential information.

Ronecker said that process seems overly cumbersome. He asked if the city could change its policy and instead train officials to recognize those items that should not be included in their e-mails.

Other council members said they, too, want the public to view their e-mails. But after listening to Trask, they were worried they might break the law if they switched back to freer access via a computer.

Jim Rhea, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said that Oldsmar seems to be following the law in its response to the Times' weekly requests.

"They have an obligation to provide public records," Rhea said. "They also have a duty to redact information that's confidential or exempt."

But, he said, officials should also look for ways to make information easier for the public to access.

In Dunedin, public access to a City Hall computer terminal used to view city officials' e-mails was shut down in June after Trask, who also serves as attorney there, raised concerns about potential privacy violations. But last month, Dunedin's City Commission voted to restore easy public viewing of commissioners' e-mails.

Ronecker said Oldsmar should follow Dunedin's lead.

"Let's make it as easy as possible for people to get the records," Ronecker said.

The Oldsmar City Council plans to revisit the issue next month.

In other action Tuesday, the council approved an annual $1.48 million contract with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services for the 2012 fiscal year.

City leaders also recognized former City Attorney John Hubbard with the City Council/Manager Award. Hubbard, who was hired by the city in late 1970, served as Oldsmar's attorney for 18 years.

Council member Jerry Beverland presented the award to Hubbard, whom he said served Oldsmar with "dignity" and "tenacity." He said Hubbard was responsible for virtually all of the city's land development code. And he kept Beverland in line.

"You know that I have a propensity to say things at different times when I shouldn't say them and he was always there to shut me up," said Beverland, who also served on the council in the 1970s.

Hubbard, who has been practicing as a municipal attorney for 40 years, said Oldsmar was his first city attorney job.

"I'm very proud to have been a very small part of the success of this town, which now is so modern and progressive and different than when I practiced here as your city attorney," Hubbard said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Oldsmar debates public access to City Council e-mails 08/04/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2011 7:59pm]
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