DUNEDIN – The Dunedin City Commission voted 4-1 July 21 on a new procedure for how to handle public records requests. Commissioner Julie Scales dissented.
City staff recently spent about six hours going through a week’s worth of city emails to ensure nothing confidential was released in a public records request. There were just five potential confidential emails to be retracted – four from the city attorney’s office and one from the human resources department about a grievance. Staff and the commission agreed a better system should be addressed.
The previous city attorney, John Hubbard, was more comfortable in paper communication than email, said current city attorney, Thomas Trask. Since Trask took over after Hubbard retired, he has sent emails to be efficient, but that has caused potential problems with public records requests and confidential information.
If attorney correspondence is taken out of the mix, that would nearly eliminate the risk for confidential information being released in public records requests, the commission agreed.
One initial idea was that it was someone’s job to review all the emails to ensure nothing confidential would accidentally get released. Commissioner Ron Barnette later suggested that each person takes responsibility to ensure that his or her emails do not contain any confidential information.
“What if we did it on the front end and instead we have a check system and the commissioners all went down their little list and made sure they didn’t send this stuff out to begin with?” Barnette said. “And then if the press wants it, they don’t have to worry at the other end because we’ve already done it.”
If the public sends an email with private information such as a social security number and then there is a public records request, the city is legally obligated to redact that bit of information, Trask said. If the filter is going to be on the receiving end, then there would need to be a “questionable” file that those emails could get put into for potential redaction, he said.
“I had the same thoughts that you did, vice mayor,” said Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski. “For the time that it would take for Denise’s office or city hall’s office to go through this day in, day out, weekly, whatever, as compared to how many problems that we have come across, I mean no one has seen a problem yet that we know of. So in my opinion, I think it’s a matter of training. Training the commission, training the department heads, training all of the staff, putting a limit on what the city attorney and HR can send us and law enforcement and training there. Offering an alternative way of getting that information, fax or whatever we decide, but I think actually if we all are trained properly, to catch that once-in-a-lifetime thing, and those other things are taken out of the mix, really those things that have caused the problems, if there is an attorney question folder, if we have anything that we question then we just move it to that folder.”
Commissioner Dave Carson agreed that for the small proportion of potential problems that arise, it would not be a justified use of a staff member’s time to singularly be responsible for going through all of the emails.
For the next 30 days after the meeting, the procedure will remain the same, with staff hunting to make sure nothing slipped through, but then the new system will take over.
“In 30 days we’ll have the training set up and everyone ready to go so they can access the computer over at the city clerk’s office so they can get emails,” said Mayor Dave Eggers.