Freeport council wrestles with new e-mail policy

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FREEPORT — After a heated discussion and an abrupt end to deliberations, the Town Council on Tuesday adopted new guidelines for use of e-mail by its members.

The vote was 5-2. Councilors Joe Migliaccio and Eric Pandora voted against the policy, saying they wanted a more comprehensive Freedom of Access policy that addresses more than just e-mail.

Under state law, e-mail messages to and from councilors on matters of town business are public records, subject to the right of the public to inspect and copy, unless the material is otherwise deemed confidential by law.

The new e-mail policy creates a town e-mail address for each councilor to use for town business. It states that any town-related e-mail sent to or from a councilor’s work, home or personal e-mail address should be forwarded to the town e-mail address for retention.

However, Council Chairman Jim Cassida said it is up to each councilor to comply, since the policy uses the word “should,” not must or will.

“It is discretionary to each councilor,” Cassida said. “It is up to individual councilors to keep the information on the website or not.”

He encouraged councilors to do what they desire, but told them not to destroy any correspondence.

“There is not one communication I’ve had (as a councilor) I don’t consider a public record,” he said. “To anyone who wants to see them give us a call, come look at them.”

Under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, if councilors use their personal e-mail for town business, their personal e-mail accounts are subject to inspection by the public.

According to town attorney Chris Vaniotis of Bernstein Shur, any written record received or prepared in connection with government business is public information.

“The most efficient way to meet that obligation is for the public official to provide copies of such e-mail to the Town Office,” he said in an e-mail to the town. “Otherwise, a person requesting a copy has the right under the statute to obtain a copy directly from the public official.”

Migliaccio said he was concerned that the wording in the guideline would allow other councilors or town staff to look at his e-mail without properly notifying him and that access to his e-mail would be more easily accessible to other officials and town staff than the public.

The policy as proposed said “except in response to a Freedom of Access Act request from a person who is not an official or employee of the town of Freeport, no access to individual town councilor e-mail accounts, past or present, may be conducted by any town staff without providing written notification to the individual town councilor stating the purpose of access.”

Councilors discussed amending the policy by removing “from a person who is not an official or employee of the Town of Freeport,” in order to ensure access to e-mails could be obtained only after a FOA request is submitted. There was no separate vote on the amendment.

“This is premature,” Migliaccio said. “This should be linked to the FOA policy we will be developing. Why are we concerned with e-mail and not letters? We should allow inspection of all documents the same way.”

The way the policy is written erodes and undermines councilor’s privacy rights, he said and doesn’t address any communication sent by mail, text message or instant message.

But other councilors supported the policy. Councilor Charlotte Bishop said while she doesn’t use e-mail, she thought the policy made access to information more consistent.

“Having this discussion only makes people want to know what we are hiding,” she said.

In the middle of council discussion, Bishop moved the question and ended deliberation. Cassida called for a vote on the policy as amended, although no vote on amendments had been taken.

Johanna Hanselman, the town’s general assistance administrator, said she spoke to Sharon Coffin, the council secretary Wednesday morning. Coffin told her the amendments were discussed, but there is no record of a vote on the amended items.

Town Manager Dale Olmstead has been out sick. He did not attend Tuesday’s meeting and was not available Wednesday morning to discuss the council’s action.

Hanselman later said council rules do not require separate votes on amendments as long as councilors understand the intent to amend, so the policy stands as amended.

She said councilor’s town e-mail addresses would be posted on the town website.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net

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