Last updated: April 19. 2013 12:24PM - 207 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com - (570) 991-6388



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Luzerne County government may follow the example of Sarasota County, Fla., by automatically putting emails between council members and the manager online.
The move would allow citizens to monitor county activity outside of meetings and save time processing public information requests for emails, said county Manager Robert Lawton.
“I think in the long run it will be far more efficient for everyone involved and increase accountability and transparency,” he said.
Lawton said he has started discussions with the county solicitor and information technology director about legal and technical issues that must be addressed.
County officials must look for ways to make emails more accessible because the county’s Right-to-Know officer, who also works as a solicitor’s office executive assistant, is in the process of personally reviewing more than 35,000 emails to comply with public information requests, he said. The county doesn’t have funds to add Right-to-Know officers, he said.
“We want to find ways to make the release of emails more self-executing, rather than depending on someone to read and review 35,000 emails,” he said.
Some of the outstanding requests are for emails between employees, and Lawton was only aware of counties posting emails of the governing body and manager or administrator.
County Council Chairman Tim McGinley said he welcomes discussion on the option.
“I have no problems with it personally. There’s nothing hidden in my emails,” McGinley said.
A key would be the addition of a disclaimer warning email senders about the potential public posting before they proceed, he said. Lawton said such a warning is necessary.
“That way a person would fully understand if they want to proceed with an email that it may end up in a public setting,” McGinley said.
Lawton said the strategy must be examined to ensure emails exempt from public release aren’t posted, such as ones containing privileged solicitor communication about pending litigation.
Managers and council also occasionally receive emails from residents seeking resolution of their children and youth cases, which would not be a public record, he said.
These types of emails would not be posted online under the system used in Sarasota County unless the manager and council send them to each other.
Sarasota County has provided online posting of emails between its five commissioners and administrator since 2005, said Glenn Zimmerman, the county’s chief information officer.
“It’s something the county did years ago to be more transparent and reduce the number of public records requests,” he said.
The commissioners and administrator avoid problems by refraining from discussing confidential information through email, he said.
“They are very aware and used to the fact that it will be posted out there. We use email very businesslike, nothing like the way it’s used in a typical private organization,” he said.
There’s no additional cost because the software the county uses to manage email allows online posting at no extra charge, Zimmerman said. The county’s I.T. department also created a search box allowing the public to find emails using keywords or for particular time periods, he said.
“It’s a pretty popular site,” he said. “Active citizens regularly go in and take a look at what the commissioners and administrator are talking about.”
Some Sarasota County government watchdog groups are pushing for more posting, saying all incoming and outgoing messages should go online -- not just ones commissioners and the administrator choose to exchange with each other.
Sarasota officials have rejected that request to date. Automatic posting of all emails could raise legal issues here because council and the manager would have no ability to screen out messages containing information exempt from public release.
All emails of the five elected commissioners in Alachua County, Fla., also are posted online.
Commissioners warn on their website that the posting of SPAM or solicitations from outside entities containing inappropriate material is “outside our control.” Attachments to emails appear as garbled text until commissioners view them.
Mark Sexton, Alachua County’s communications coordinator, said email senders are alerted their addresses and other personal information will appear online. Employees don’t send sensitive material to commissioners through email, such as information that can’t be released under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, he said.
Sexton said some citizens and local media are “religious viewers” of the emails.
“This saves everyone some time, including citizens who don’t have to make public information requests every time they want to see an email,” Sexton said. “We really bend over backwards to be transparent.”
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