Editorial: Town's Email Policy Not All Inclusive

By / Editorials / Wednesday, 03 August 2016 04:00

By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
Managing Editor

I was at the Carolina Beach Town Hall on Monday August 1st, browsing through emails on the public email terminal. I came across an email that stated in part, "Can you make it so NO emails sent to/from me (unless to Dept. Heads or Council) show up on public email terminal?"
Under North Carolina General Statute Chapter 132 " Public Records" the State Legislature decided many years ago what records are public and what records are confidential.
Emails are public record so long as they do not deal with personnel matters or an active police investigation as well as some other limited circumstances. Local governments either provide an email terminal or they can copy them to CD or a USB jump drive. Just because an official says a document is a "draft" doesn't mean you can't obtain a copy. The law doesn't identify that as a reason to keep a document secret. Most of the time obtaining public records is not complicated.
I asked Town Manager Michael Cramer about the Town's official email policy.
In 2012 the Council adopted the Email Terminal Policy. In a letter to employees it stated, "In an effort to comply with public information laws, the Town will make available to the public copies of incoming and outgoing emails from the Town Council, the Town Manager and all Department Heads. Emails that are considered confidential will be filtered out of the public terminal. It is the responsibility of the employee to add the word "Confidential" in the subject line as well as in the body of the email."
I responded to Mr. Cramer stating, "Since the Email Terminal was installed I've been able to see emails from Brian, Jerry, Shelia, Jennifer or any other Town employee even when those emails where not addressed to the Manager, Department Head or Council. Those emails are also public record under state statute with the obvious exceptions being spelled out in that law. Nothing should be filtered other than those items the law makes confidential. I would ask that the policy be changed to include all employees. Those emails are the property of the people."
Cramer responded via email stating, "Nothing restricts you or anyone else from making a public records request for any emails related to any town employee or topic.  The Public Email Terminal is strictly a vehicle of convenience that the town council has approved so that the public can easily gain access to certain emails. If you would like to discuss the public records law and what is actually required, please feel free to contact our Town Attorney Noel Fox."
That's fair. However, the terminal was not created "strictly a vehicle of convenience" to give the public easy access to certain emails. While it is convenient for the public, it's a lot more convenient for Town staff.
How can someone request copies of a particular email if they do not know it exists in the first place?
Prior to the email terminal being installed I would go to Town Hall and request emails for certain employees and elected leaders over a certain timeframe. That could be one week or six months worth of emails.
That takes time to collect and save to a CD.
The email terminal helps promote transparency in government. Open the shades and let the sun shine in. In this case, it appears they are now tightening up the rules and if I want to see emails to and from employees other than Department Heads, I'll have to start requesting them on CD every week. The Town may try to charge me for the additional staff time, but that's pointless. Why charge for staff time to copy those emails each week rather than simply changing the way emails are filtered and allowing emails from all Town employees to appear on the public email terminal?
Basically, set up the terminal to display those emails with an easy one time change in the email system software, or, create more work by having to manually fulfill a public records request each week.
Nothing personal. The media has an obligation to promote transparent government. Government has an obligation to be as transparent as possible and Carolina Beach has a pretty good  record of being transparent. Changing this policy will certainly support their desire to be as transparent as possible.
The email terminal was debated for a quite some time and Councilman Steve Shuttleworth was a big proponent of getting the machine set up at Town Hall.
Shuttleworth wrote to Cramer in an email, "The intent of council was to make all emails available on the terminal except those confidential which I understood to be employement, medical or closed door type transmissions. Prior management was not as enthusiastic  about making emails easly obtainable. When did we start filtering and limiting access via the public terminal? Doesnt this create more work for staff when we start getting more FOIA requests? It makes us less transparent  and acts like we are hiding discussions."
Mayor Dan Wilcox wrote to Cramer in an email stating, "I also have concerns with transperancy and the perception that we are hiding activity and/or information from the public. I also question the premise that if someone makes a request for items not on the puclic server, they would get that information. How would someone know to make a request for something if they don't have access to monitor general email traffic for items of interest? I realize this policy predates you, but I think council and staff should discuss this practice."

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Carolina Beach North Carolina

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