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City commission to consider additional delays in publishing their emails

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / NOVEMBER 5, 2019

During the afternoon session of Thursday’s Gainesville City Commission meeting, when few people are able to attend because of work commitments, the commission will consider changes to its policies for posting emails, along with the rule changes we previously covered.

During the August 8 General Policy Committee meeting, several commissioners said that they had been told by constituents that citizens hesitate to email the commission because the emails are posted on the commission’s website. The commissioners also said they were concerned about private information that sometimes ends up in the emails; because of this potential for private information to be exposed, some commissioners argued for a delay before emails are posted to the website. 

During that meeting, Mayor Poe said, “72 hours is not enough… if we are traveling or our kid gets sick, we just can’t check all our emails every day. Not just check them and respond to the ones that need to be responded to, but really vet them for sensitive information… I would feel like I needed a week to very carefully consider — at least ones I thought might have some sensitive information, I put them aside. I go back to those. Either I call the person and say are you all right with this, or I just make an executive decision to say I’m not comfortable with that information being out there, I’m going to put it in the ‘Do Not Publish’ file. But I need a little time to do that.”

Commissioner Harvey Ward and a number of citizens argued that the city should continue to post emails, in the interest of transparency. Ward said, “If we don’t publish emails, then… that’s one less opportunity for the press to be a watchdog on government. I want the press to be a watchdog on government because I’m not always going to be here. Either in a few months or a year or two, I won’t be a commissioner any longer. And I want the press keeping an eye on whoever is sitting in my seat.”

Several citizens brought up the county’s policy of publishing all emails to or from county commissioners. The county commission has not publicly discussed any problems that have arisen from their policy, which is considerably more transparent than the city’s current policy. The city’s current policy is that emails that are marked “read” by commissioners are published to the city’s website each evening. The result is that it is impossible to determine how many commissioner emails go unpublished without doing a public records request for every email.

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In response to the commission’s request that staff bring them some proposed rules for publishing emails, Walter Banks, the Chief Information Officer of GRU, sent a memo to commissioners that lays out a new process for handling commissioner emails.

According to the memo, the process (which is in the backup to Thursday’s agenda and will thus probably be presented at the meeting for approval) requires commissioners to decide which emails will be published. They do this by reading the emails and leaving them in a “Read” status for 7 consecutive days. If they never read the emails, only view them in a preview pane, or move them, at any time during the 7 days, into their “Do Not Publish” (DNP) folder, the emails will not be published on the website. 

All sent emails are published unless they are moved to the “Do Not Publish” folder. 

If approved, the new script for moving emails from the mail server to the website (for public viewing) will scan every email nightly and publish an email if it has been marked “Read” for 7 consecutive days and is in either of the commissioners’ “Inbox” or “Sent” folders. 

If an email is published in error, the IT department can remove it, once they are notified. 

The instructions to commissioners caution them to “Remember to check your Sent Items folder for items that may need to be moved to the DNP folder.”

They are also instructed to not permanently delete any email messages less than 1 week old, and the memo gives them directions for permanently deleting emails. (Since all emails are public records, it does not appear to be legally permissible to “permanently delete” them.)

It is important to note that they are not limited to the proposals in this memo; they can choose to do anything from publishing no emails at all to publishing all of them.

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