Friday, January 22, 2010

City email shenanigans

There is a debate going forth on Brand X about official city business and email correspondence. I know from experience that when I have requested ALL communications from city officials on certain issues I have never seen any emails for any council members. I find this a little hard to believe. They have official city email accts for city business. I find it hard to believe that no one, NO ONE, uses any email to communicate.
It is time for a change!

JIm Wagner

San Jose poised to close electronic message loophole

Posted: 01/20/2010 06:19:47 PM PST
Updated: 01/21/2010 04:17:25 AM PST


With iPhones and BlackBerrys becoming must-have accessories, San Jose is poised to approve a groundbreaking disclosure policy that would ensure elected leaders don't use those personal devices to skirt public-records laws.
Most cities have taken a position that e-mails and other electronic messages are only subject to public disclosure if they're on the city's official network. Watchdog groups around the country say that leaves a gaping loophole for elected officials to secretly discuss public business through private e-mail, cell phones and other devices.
On Wednesday — five months after the Mercury News first raised the issue — a San Jose council committee voted to make messages about public matters that council members send or receive on such personal devices subject to disclosure, just like other official records.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, called San Jose's proposed policy "a big step forward."
"I don't think anybody has come this far yet," Scheer said. "The city has recognized that if you don't take this step, the public's right to electronic records is not really very meaningful, because it's so easy to transfer important communications from official e-mail to a private e-mail account."
The council's Rules and Open Government Committee, chaired by Mayor Chuck Reed, voted unanimously for the proposed policy. Also approved was a proposal requiring council members to  
disclose messages from lobbyists and other interested parties that they receive during council meetings. The recommendations go to the full City Council next month.
The policy would apply to the mayor, council members and their staffs. It does not require them to retain messages sent via a personal e-mail account or device for any length of time.
But if the city receives a records request, they must provide any relevant city-related messages stored in their personal devices. The only exceptions would be communications that are exempted from the California Public Records Act, such as those dealing with sensitive legal matters.
The idea for such a policy emerged last year when the Mercury News requested messages sent or received by council members during meetings in a three-month period. City lawyers refused to include any sent to the officials' personal phones and e-mail accounts, citing privacy and practicality.
But a couple of council members voluntarily provided their private cell phone logs and text messages. Among them was a note from the phone of Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, then-leader of the South Bay Labor Council, to Councilman Sam Liccardo. Sent during a council meeting on a controversial plan to give millions of city dollars to a downtown retail project, the message appeared to offer directions on how to vote.
Council members have said such communiqu├ęs regularly arrive from interested advocates — even at the moment votes are being cast.
The public records act generally requires government agencies to disclose documents and electronic communications concerning public business. But the law is unclear about how to treat records about public matters that aren't stored by the government.
"Just because it's not retained by the city," Reed said Wednesday, "is not a reason for it not to be considered a public record."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346


Jeffrey W Simons said...

Thanks for posting that Wags! Are you wearing a tacky Hawaiin shirt today?

This discussion started on Riptide, many many moons ago, and I want to respond to something Dave Yuhas said over there (in the interest of full disclosure, I have a grudge against Dave Yuhas. When I was posting to the Pacifica-L list, Dave went to my high school class website and made some inferences about my "quote" on that website that I took to be a thinly veiled threat to silence me. Time to pay the piper, Yuhas.)

"Two points:

1 - No evidence has been presented that council members are using city-furnished email accounts to "skirt public records requests and open government."

2 - If you take away council members' city-furnished email accounts, what's to prevent them from obtaining their own personal accounts, or simply using personal cell phones for nefarious purposes?"

#1 - not sure if Dave understands the issue. The problem isn't that councilmembers are using city emails to skirt public records request and open government. The problem was that, during the permitting process for the proposed biodiesel plant, Councilman Jim Vreeland was using his PERSONAL email to conduct city business. When public records requests were made for any city emails regarding this project, the response was "there are none" because Mister Vreeland was using his PERSONAL account to steamroll this project through the regulatory process. Its tough for the citizens to stay informed when someone is deliberately gaming the system to hide their correspondences. (Then again, its tough to get building permits in Pacifica unless you're an elected official willing to ruin the career of an honorable city building inspector.)

If someone does city business on their personal email, and a public records request is submitted, only the government issued email is checked. And elected officials do this to skirt full disclosure when conducting government business they don't want revealed.

#2 - yeah, that's the point Dave. The citizens aren't trying to take away government issued accounts, they're trying to get elected officials to use their government issued email accounts to conduct GOVERNMENT BUSINESS. Seems pretty far out there, dude, but take it for what it is.

Kathy Meeh said...

Government business on government regulatory e-mail makes sense as a protection for the city official and the citizen. Other people who work for the city use city e-mail.

You would think the city attorney would have already been proactive in establishing such a system.

Jeffrey W Simons said...

its hilarious reading this thread on Riptide. The attacks on Stechbart are amusing at best, simply for demanding that city business be conducted on city email.

The irony is that the council apologists are berating Stechbart to prove that Councilman Vreeland did something wrong by using his personal email to conduct city business in regards to the biodiesel plant, when Stechbart even states his records request to see these emails were denied since they were from Vreeland's personal account.

Yet if a Republican appointed Attorney General did government business on his personal email and refused to disclose those emails as part of a FOIA request, Karen Rosenstein would be hyperventilating.

Anonymous said...

Badgering neighbors (all the way from North Texas, where you are afforded some measure of honesty) is going to help fix Pacifica?

Why not discuss or debate the issue? Noting the apparent irony is one thing, but then going on to make stuff up about a neighbor, that's helping fix Pacifica how?

Jeffrey W Simons said...

"Badgers"? We don't need no steeenkin BADGERS!!

Here's Karen's comment on Riptide:

"The headline on your post implies that all of City Council's private emails should be the focus of our attention. As this thread has continued, it clearly shows that this is yet ANOTHER attempt by the anti-council/pro-developer crowd to harass just one of the council members."

I thought the hyperbole of my last statement was obvious, and I forgot how to spell "apoplectic" in the wee hours of the night. No badgering intended to Karen Rosenstein. However, one could say accusing Stechbart of manufacturing a controversy is more inflammatory.

But here's my point to help "Fix Pacifica" . . . for many years, any criticism or complaint made about how our elected officials conduct the city business has been defended by the Rosensteins, Todd Bray, Peter Loeb, Dinah Verby, Fred Howard . . . as being the ominous agenda of a "pro-development" crowd. They instantly put the councilmember in the victim role to garner sympathy and support for them.

Let's assume for arguments sake that I had managed to get elected in 2008. Let's assume for arguments sake I used my private email to push through a development for Don Peebles and discussed strategy and statements that would be made to the public and government agencies on behalf of this project. Let's assume Karen Rosenstein filed a Public Records Request for all my communications in that regard, and the city clerk said my private email was off limits. Would this be acceptable then?

Clearly, Stechbart is not implying that all city council private emails are open to the public. Clearly he is saying that a city council member appears to have used his private email to conduct city business, out of the purview of the public's eye, with the intent to skirt any scrutiny should such a public records request be made. Clearly Stechbart has tangible evidence that Mister Vreeland did just that.

Caught red-handed, Vreeland's supporters turn to accusing the accuser, and portraying their golden boy as the victim of a smear campaign. My intent to help fix Pacifica is to identify the people to whom you should give no credence when they argue a point, and educate the public on the system by which they control the message.

And yes I remember the stink my fellow Democrats raised when Alberto Gonzales did exactly what Mister Vreeland did, and my fellow Democrats railed about the Attorney General subverting the Democratic process. And rightfully so, in my opinion. I just don't give any government official a pass on this behavior. EVER.

Kathy Meeh said...

The Karen Rosenstein comment from Riptide "...anti-council/pro-developer crowd to harass just one of the council members." Only one City Council member Karen? Four of them sold us a pile of ecology "rocks" and said it was economic "gold". Try viewing the same statement in the positive: "pro-city/pro-citizen assembly gathering or alliance".

Some of us have worked in the financial/securities business where separate monitored/viewed-oversight email is required. Other business activity may make no such requirement, but keeping e-mails, notes, and documents is essential in event of clarification or conflict.

How is this different from the "day jobs" of city council members. What email/note keeping requirements have currently been set for this city, and how is such information reviewed and enforced by our city attorney? If the answer is "none", that's a risk both to the council members and to the people of this city.

Government and its representatives are accountable for being transparent, and desiring to have a financially stable, functional and improving city is not a bad thing-- its normal city and citizen expectation.

Even Karen supported having a new Walgreen in town, because it benefits her I guess. Unfortunately we also lost a movie theater. Don't you think this city should have both, and a dog park, city museum (Little Brown Church), a 21st Century Library, SP Golf Course, a levy to hold back the ocean, an upgraded sewer system, undergrounded utilities, city and highway 1 roads that are more functional, additional services and business. And, why should we have to drive over the hill for most "everything"? To late for better city planning, most of the land is gone, but some "smart development" is needed to help pay the overhead if for no other reason. For sure this city is not in jeopardy for not having too much "open space", just the opposite exists.

Its doubtful that this response, or those of Jeff prior would be printed on Riptide. Thanks Jim for re-posting.

Jeffrey W Simons said...

I certainly invite Karen to come to an open blog and respond to her comments. The accusation she makes of Stechbart is specious and without merit, as opposed to the accusation Stechbart made of Vreeland, which seems well documented and concise.