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Hayes-Santos and Johnson stop publishing their emails after City Commission changes policy

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / NOVEMBER 10, 2019

All the emails of Commissioners Hayes-Santos and Johnson have been removed from the email portal following a City Commission vote that allowed individual commissioners to decide whether to publish their emails at all.

In response to a request from the General Policy Committee, Paul Daignault, a manager in GRU’s IT department, presented the department’s recommendations for publishing emails during the November 7 City Commission meeting.

Under the policy that existed until Thursday’s decision, emails that are marked “Read” by city commissioners were published on the city’s email portal nightly. Commissioners could avoid publication by not reading emails, by reading them in a preview pane, by marking them “Unread,” or by moving them into a “Do Not Publish” folder. As a result, it is unknown how many emails go unpublished. Andrew Caplan’s article about his public records request for commissioner emails stated, for example, that Commissioner David Arreola only published 2% of his emails during the time period covered by the request.

It is unusual for cities to publish emails, but there is pressure to continue to do so because the Alachua County Commission publishes all of its emails, not just those selected for publication by commissioners. It is notable that Alachua County has reported none of the problems that city commissioners cite when they argue against continuing to publishing them. Gainesville has been publishing selected commissioner emails for about 5 years. 

The proposed policy added a 7-day delay; the new script will move emails to the portal only if they have been marked “Read” for 7 consecutive days and are in the “Inbox” or “Sent” folders. A commissioner can mark an email “Unread” at any point during the 7 days (or move it to another folder), and the email will not be published. If the commissioner again marks it “Read,” the 7-day count starts over. 

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During the presentation, Daignault made several comments about deleting emails, which is problematic because all emails sent or received by public officials are public records. For example, he said, “so if your email’s been read and it’s in your inbox 3 days, you put it in the Trash, on the 4th day you take it out of the Trash, it starts over, you’re not on day 4, you’re on day zero” and  “if you delete an e-mail, un-delete an email, delete an email, un-delete an email, it doesn’t matter, it’s only what the state of the e-mail in the evening when the nightly process is run.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos argued against publishing emails at all: “I have strong concerns with this, as I do with what we currently do. This is — we do fake transparency, in a sense these e-mails are ones that aren’t being hidden. I don’t know if people even understand that things are being hidden… this is kind of a fake transparency. No other city in the country, that we’ve been able to find, does this. And they don’t do it because it’s not good government, and things don’t get done… I personally limit my use of how I interact with staff because sometimes I may want to e-mail things to staff members, and they may not want to go public in 7 days or whatever amount it might be… 

“I personally don’t think I can be an effective commissioner with currently how we set this up because it restricts me from being able to serve my constituents. So I think we should stop publishing our e-mails how we have and to follow the public records laws like everyone else does. If the commission does want to do it for themselves, I would ask to be taken out of that and to not have my e-mails published because I want to be able to be effective to my constituents and I do not feel like I can do that… I’ll deal with the public records requests but… I want to be able to serve my constituents and I don’t feel I can right now.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson asked for some clarifications on the process, then said, “So, it sounds like the onus for managing this e-mail process is going to be on us as commissioners and mayor. That seems like a lot… I would also prefer if we did this as an opt-out or opt-in. I would prefer not to have to manage this myself… I would prefer that the e-mails are not published, and if that is the will of the commission, then I would like the ability to opt out.”

Hayes-Santos moved that the city stop publishing emails and follow Florida public records laws. Johnson seconded the motion. 

Commissioner Helen Warren said, “This is so much more complicated than I feel comfortable with, to talk about opting in and opting out. I feel like we should all have the same policy that we operate by. I feel like it’s going to create an unwelcome public conversation.” After asking some questions about how they would comply with Florida Sunshine Laws if they didn’t publish emails (the answer was that they would do it via public records requests), she said, “Well, it’s going to be a big change. I’ll wait to hear what others have to say.”

Commissioner David Arreola said he wasn’t in support of the motion and asked for clarification on what staff recommended. The answer was that the recommendation is to inject a 7-day delay in publishing. Arreola said,  “If I supported anything, it would be that… I understand that there’s not a whole lot of cities that do this, but it’s been so commonplace at this point, commissioners, I  just think we’re going to cause more problems than we think.”

Commissioner Gigi Simmons said she was also not in support of Hayes-Santos’s motion. She also reminded Daignault that the commission had discussed adding a warning to their website that all email sent to commissioners is a public record. Daignault said they could do that. 

Arreola again warned that the policy proposed in Hayes-Santos’s motion could cause problems: “If there’s a split vote, and it completely changes the way all of us manage our emails right now, you better believe that after time proceeds and this creates more strife and difficulty than it was originally worth in the first place, I will be asking to reconsider the vote. Because I appreciate the commissioner’s arguments, I just do not accept them. To say that publishing emails, as it currently is, is a facet of fake transparency, I think is a bit of rhetoric, and I don’t see how requiring citizens to ask for public records requests, when we’re already being inundated by public records requests, to add more of those when they can simply log on right now and get emails, I think is again creating more problems than it’s worth. 

“I would ask that the maker or the seconder of the motion at least consider the staff recommendation for the seven-day publishing period because that will give us a medium between what we currently have, which is basically same day, and it won’t have us go down a path which honestly… it’s not just citizens who utilize it. It’s members of the media who utilize it. If we pass this motion that’s on the floor, we’re going to be inviting a lot at our doorstep. I don’t think it’s worth it. We’ve got lots more important things to do. You all hear me, all the time, talk about how dumb it is we spend so much time talking about email. We’re going to be talking more about it if we pass this motion, I promise you.”

Mayor Lauren Poe said, “I get that there’s a potential benefit to having a unified email policy amongst all the commissioners. But honestly it’s our e-mail… I’m perfectly okay with every commissioner deciding what works best for them. I want everybody to do what they feel is most comfortable and most beneficial to them and their constituents. I’m fine with the way the system works… I guess I’m just used to what I do and I manage it the way I do, and that works for me.

“I don’t expect for that to work for Commissioner Johnson or Commissioner Arreola or anybody else. I mean, I just I want you all to be able to do what works best for you… then if your constituents have a problem with that, then you can take it up with them. I do see a value in a waiting period… if I don’t go through my e-mail every day… it just backs up… That’s why I want a waiting period… So I have a few days to sort of check things but then get around to protecting citizens’ information… I don’t know why we should feel compelled to all do the same thing.”

Then Poe opened up the motion for public comment, but nobody spoke. The motion failed, 2-4, with only Johnson and Hayes-Santos in support.

Simmons then moved to accept the staff recommendation for a 7-day delay and also to include the disclaimer on the website about emails being public records. Arreola seconded the motion and added an amendment allowing commissioners to decide whether or not to publish their emails and how many days of delay they want before publishing their emails. The motion passed unanimously. 

By Friday, all of the emails for Commissioners Hayes-Santos and Johnson were removed from the email portal.

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  • David Arreolla is just posturing for reelection. He is one of the worst at posting as I try to read the emails as I live in district 3. He goes for weeks and doesn’t publish all then. Further more, they all have gmail accounts they conduct city business on that we never see.

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