County to set policy on e-mail
Even as the number of electronic messages sent between Pitkin County commissioners and their constituents plummet, the top brass at Pitkin County are in the midst of hammering out a new policy on electronic mail.
Once it’s in place, the policy is likely to set limits on the amount of time e-mail is saved on the county’s computer backup system, or at least change the program to make retrieval easier, said County Manager Suzanne Konchan.
It’s also likely to provide guidance for the county commissioners and county staff on how to use e-mail to communicate amongst one another without breaking the state law on open meetings.
The policy comes despite the fact that e-mail has become a pariah of sorts. County Commissioners Dorothea Farris and Shellie Harper report that fewer and fewer county residents are using e-mail to communicate with county government, because they fear whatever they write will be released for public consumption.
The recent release of thousands of county e-mails have “interfered with the openness in a very negative way, whether it involves staff or people from the community,” said Farris.
Officials from the county attorney’s office, the county manager’s office and the county/city information services office have been dealing with three requests for county e-mail made under Colorado’s open records act since mid-January.
The first came from attorney Paul Taddune, who represents the gated community of Starwood, located above McLain Flats, some four or five miles from the center of Aspen. Taddune requested all of the county e-mail that includes references to a series of land-use-code amendments proposed last fall, and the recently adopted moratorium on new applications for large homes.
A second open records request came in late February from attorney Millard Zimet, a member of the Committee to Recall County Commissioner Mick Ireland. Zimet wanted all of Ireland’s e-mail relating to county business dating back to Jan. 1, 1999.
Recall committee members – Penny Evans Carruth, Heidi Friedland, Amy Martineau, Mary Ellen Schrembi, George Shifrin and Zimet – say they launched the recall after finding an e-mail among those released to Taddune in which Ireland identified a dozen local developers and property owners as “greedheads and liars.” They’ve maintained that the recall is simply about Ireland’s behavior toward his constituents, and said they planned to sort through the rest of his e-mail to see if there was further evidence of his discourteousness.
Their request stalled after the county informed Zimet that the cost of retrieving the e-mails from Ireland’s and the county’s computers was more than $2,800, and printouts of those e-mail’s would run 50 cents apiece. County officials say there are several thousand electronic communications that need to be read, one by one, to make sure none are released that contain privileged communications between Ireland and clients of his law practice, or official communications that are exempt from the requirements of the open records act.
The request was renewed by a wealthy Aspenite Larry Winnerman, an Ireland foe, who also asked for County Commissioner Leslie Lamont’s e-mail.
Both of Colorado’s so-called Sunshine laws – the open meetings law and the open records law – are very specific about how e-mail should be treated.
The open meetings law reads, “If elected officials use electronic mail to discuss pending legislation or any other public business among themselves, the electronic mail shall be subject to the requirements of this section.” That means e-mail discussions between three or more Pitkin County commissioners on a single topic relating to official business are considered meetings, and must be publicly noticed and carried out in a way that allows for public access.
The open records act requires government to treat the e-mail it saves on computers like other documents, and make much of it available on demand. The law does provide several exceptions where government can keep documents secret, including correspondence between a constituent and an elected official that clearly implies an expectation of confidentiality.
County Manager Konchan said the requests have been difficult to comply with, because much of the e-mail is stored in sections of the computer that aren’t often accessed. So one part of the new county policy is likely to determine where and how long e-mail should be stored.
The county commissioners are also looking at setting a policy for themselves, especially in light of news that three of them broke the open meetings law by deliberating and debating the merits of the moratorium via e-mail in the three days leading up to its adoption.
“It looks like we’re going to have to adopt a policy among ourselves. It’s too bad, because it’s going to take some of the fun out of this job,” said Harper.
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