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Selective governing could lead to peril

The primary duty of a county administrator is to carry out the policies and directives of the elected members of the Board of County Commissioners.

But Hernando County Administrator Paul McIntosh apparently is choosing which of the board's policies he will carry out.

One example of his selective approach to governing came to light recently when McIntosh, during a meeting with several Times employees, acknowledged he and his staff were not adhering to the commission's policy regarding the accessibility and retention of electronic public records.

But McIntosh didn't just concede he had been lax in enforcing the policy; he flatly stated he has no intention of doing so because he believes the policy exists only for the convenience of newspaper reporters.

"I'm not going to do it, and I'm not going to tell my staff to do it," McIntosh said. "Tell me what document you want and, if it exists, I'll provide it. But I'm not going to provide bait for your fishing expeditions," he said.

McIntosh's cynical opinion of the press notwithstanding, county commissioners should be very concerned that the person they rely on to oversee the day-to-day operations of county government is casually disregarding their wishes. The commissioners also should be troubled that McIntosh's indifference to this matter most likely means that he and his employees have failed to comply with laws regarding the maintenance and destruction of electronic public records.

State law is very clear about what constitutes a public record. Florida Statute 119 states that public records include all materials "made or received" by an agency in connection with official business that are used to "perpetuate, communicate or formalize knowledge." In 1995, the Legislature amended that long-standing definition to include information transmitted by computer.

With the intent of complying with the state law, and then taking it a step further, the Hernando County Commission directed its staff in September 1999 to adopt a policy on the retention of electronic mail. Commissioner Nancy Robinson vocalized that request on behalf of the board, and it was unanimously agreed upon by all the commissioners, including Chris Kingsley. The staff took several months to draft the policy, and after careful review by the legal and technical services departments, the board formally adopted the policy in February 2000.

That policy also is crystal clear. The board ordered the creation of a public records computer file that would be the repository of electronic mail records, and that the file be accessible for the public to review or copy. It reads, in part, "All e-mail transmissions that are created and/or received that may be construed as being in connection with official county business shall be copied to this file."

The policy goes on to state that any county employee who has a question about whether an electronic mail file is a public record, should contact the legal department. That clearly conveys the message that exempting documents from the board's policy would be rare, not routine.

Almost no county employees, including the administrator and the commissioners, are complying with the policy. Members of the legal staff who helped craft the policy are the only ones who have consistently used it. It is unimaginable that even one day could pass without electronic mail regarding county business being created or transmitted. It is equally implausible that county employees have not illegally deleted files that should have been preserved.

Residents should not be forced to guess what electronic communications exist, and on which computer they are stored. They also should not beimposed on to make frequent and all-inclusive requests for voluminous data just to find out. That is a burden on county employees, as well. If the commissioners no longer support the policy, they should rescind it or rewrite it. But as long as it is on the books, it should be obeyed.

A majority of the commissioners contacted by the Times last week agreed with that sentiment. Here's what they said:

Robinson: "We have a policy and it needs to be followed. That's a board decision, not (McIntosh's), and that's why the policy is in place."

Kingsley: "I think that public records are public records. If there are things that should be going into (that records file) that are not, we should fix that."

Diane Rowden: "Why should we (county employees) be able to pick and choose what records are made public or deleted? It's destroying public records, just like if we threw them in the trash. We should enforce the existing policy now, and strengthen it later."

Betty Whitehouse: "If it's a policy, it needs to be followed. It needs to be looked atby the board reinforcing how do we do it effectively."

Mary Aiken: "The administrator knows more about these things than I do. Maybe he's going to propose changing the policy."

Given that consensus, McIntosh's defiance on this issue verges on insubordination. The full board should instruct the administrator to carry out its policy, and hold him responsible for ensuring all county employees do the same.