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COMMUNET Home

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COMMUNET  April 1999, Week 1

COMMUNET April 1999, Week 1

Subject:

fyi: Effective Email v. Gov't Records Policies

From:

Curt Priest <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Community and Civic Network discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 5 Apr 1999 18:28:52 EDT

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (180 lines)

--------- Begin forwarded message ----------
From: [log in to unmask]
To: Recipients of conference <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Effective Email v. Gov't  Records Policies
Date: 05 Apr 1999 08:12:03
Message-ID: <[log in to unmask]>


The New York Times for April 1, 1999, carried an article in the
"Technology:
Circuits" special online news section titled, "Behind Closed Email," by
reporter
Tina Kelly.

http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/04/circuits/articles/01meet.html

The article describes the impact open meeting laws have had on email
interchanges
not only between public officials, but also between them and their
constituants.
The /*net result*/ appears that a medium once touted as facilitating open
government
is now being strangled by the very "openness" it was intended to create.

Local Government Email

The 'Times' article begins by describing a request from a reporter for
the
Spokane,
WA, Spokesman-Review, the daily newspaper in the region, for all email
from
the
Spokane County Commissioners.  Since there are only three commissioners,
the
reporter reasoned, an exchange via email between two of them constituted
a
quorum
and might violate public "sunshine laws" that require public officials to
conduct
such exchanges visible to the public.

The 'Times' goes on to report that according to most public meeting laws
a
"majority" of any panel is not allowed to meet to discuss policy unless
the
public
is notified first.  Since the Iran-Contra scandals of the 1980s, all
Federal email
is considered to be a public record, and to be an official communication
of
the
government.  This means all federal email is available on request or via
the Freedom
of Information Act.  Government emails can and are routinely requested in
litiation
involving federal agencies and challenges to their actions.

Records Mangement Policy as a Gag Order

This extension of political correctness might in its most extreme
instances
may
cause mayors, county commissioners, and even federal employlees, to
reduce
their
communications to "Yes," "No,", and "What's for lunch?"  In effect, the
policies of
local, state, and federal agencies designating email as official records
de
facto
have functioned more as a gag order than as a stimulus to open
government.
Here in
Idaho I have encountered two instances where the designation of email as
a
public
record as chilled communication between the government and its citizens.

In the first instance, the Centers for Disease Control is engaged in a
multi-year,
multi-million dollar, study of the potential exposures from hazardous
chemcials and
radionuclides from Department of Energy facilities.  Citizens serving on
an
panel
chartered under the Federal Advisory Act have increasingly complained
that CDC
employees do not answer their email inquiries.

It turns out that federal employees are concerned that any mis-statement
in
an email
to the public might come back to haunt them weeks, months, or years from
now under a
discovery proceeding for related or unrelated litiation.  As a result,
they
confine
their email communications to the committee to the most humdrum of
topics,
such as
draft meeting agendas and technical documents prepared by agency
contractors.  In
one key instance, a contractor was dispatched to address a technical
issue
with
sensitive political implications so that the response to citizens would
not be
considered to be a federal record.  The contractor's email from a
commercial ISP
fell outside the rules of the National Archives for retaining federal
email.

As a members of the citizens panel we are hobbled in our efforts to
overcome the
barriers to effective communication caused by 2,000 miles of geographic
distance,
not to mention two time zones, between Idaho Falls, ID, and Atlanta, GA
(CDC's
home).  The impact of self-censorship by federal employees is a serious
problem.  It
prevents us from engaging agency officials in meaningful dialog.  While
CDC
has
established an '800 number for the panel members to use to call, agency
officials
are frequently on travel or in meetings making telephone tag, and time
lags in
critical communication, the orders of the day.  An 800 number doesn't
allow
you to
'cc' other committee members nor to engage external stakeholders.  We
have
lost the
one thing email gives us, and that is to allow for effective
communication
without
being in real time contact.

A second instance involves local government.  I'm a member of the
Planning
& Zoning
Commission in Idaho Falls, ID, a small town with a population of just
under
45,000.
I learned last month that state law designates any email I send to the
city
planning
staff be made available at public hearings.    Under Idaho law planning &
zoning
commissions are considered quasi-judicial bodies so their communications
are covered
by state "sunshine" laws.  Guess what my response is?  I am predisposed
to
use the
telephone for any communication with staff outside of meetings.  I might
use email
to raise questions about pending matters, but I certainly won't use it to
express an
opinion or solicit comments from other citizens.  You can bet the ranch I
won't
comment on a chat board or email list about land use planning issues in
Idaho Falls.

I feel my ability to communicate has been limited, and in some ways, as a
reuslt of
this experience, have better understanding of the problem faced by CDC.
I
don't
like either side of this coin, and wonder how others are dealing with it.

Dan Yurman   [log in to unmask]
PO Box 1569, Idaho Falls, ID 83403

Disclaimer: These views are my own and nobody else's.




--------- End forwarded message ----------

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