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Hard drives, public records
Morgan personnel manual says all electronic records belong to county, but legal hassle remains

By Sheryl Marsh
smarsh@decaturdaily.com· 340-2437

Two Morgan County commissioners said they were following an attorney’s advice when they decided against seeking a court order to get computer hard
drives that two officials withheld from an e-mail probe.

District 1 Commissioner Jeff Clark and District 3 Commissioner Kevin Murphy said they are familiar with the county’s personnel manual, which states that all electronic records belong to the county, but that doesn’t change their decision.

“I’m not in disagreement with the manual,” said Clark. “If it’s a question of legality, then that’s a different story. Under the advice of our attorney (Bill Shinn), it’s a legal question about the data on computers that has not been answered in court.

“We cannot control the Sheriff’s Department or any of his employees. The wishes of the elected officials need to be respected. I am not willing to take a chance to potentially waste money to get information that may not benefit us.”

Murphy said he read the personnel manual regarding e-mails. But, after Shinn advised them that it could take up to two years in court to resolve the issue, he felt it would cost the county too much.

“I did what I thought was best for the county financially,” Murphy said.

Sheriff Greg Bartlett and Revenue Commissioner Amanda Scott refused to surrender their computer hard drives for inspection, saying sensitive information is on them. Scott changed the locks on her doors.

Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, said e-mails are treated like other public records.

“Under the current open records law, there is no law that says that information in an e-mail is treated differently from one in writing,” Bailey said.

Bartlett and Scott’s determination to hold to their hard
drives ended the investigation of their electronic material.

At a Dec. 28 meeting, Murphy, Clark and District 2 Commissioner Ken Livingston authorized a computer specialist to process information from hard drives of other elected officials and department heads. Bartlett and Scott were excluded.

District 4 Commissioner Stacy George wanted to get a court order and voted no against Livingston’s move to process information from other officials’ hard drives. The majority voted yes.

Electronic communication

The county’s manual states: “No electronic communication is guaranteed to be private or confidential. All electronic communications are Morgan County property. Therefore Morgan County reserves the right to examine, monitor and regulate e-mail messages, directories and files as well as Internet usage.

“All information created or downloaded is public information and is governed by the same open record laws as paper records. Electronic mail (e-mail) downloads and material viewed is not private.”

George, who headed the investigation as chairman pro tem, asked Shinn and his law firm to recuse itself from the investigation. George said his request was based on Shinn’s ties to Scott. Campaign disclosure forms from Scott’s past campaigns show that Shinn contributed $375; one of his firm’s partners, Barnes Lovelace, $400.

Shinn recused and the commission hired a Huntsville law firm to handle the probe, but after the out-of-town firm completed its work, the commission majority brought Shinn back into the matter.

The personnel manual states other rules regarding electronic communications.

It states: “Disparaging, abusive, profane, or offensive language, materials that would adversely or negatively reflect upon Morgan County or be contrary to Morgan County’s best interests and any illegal activities, including piracy, cracking, extortion, blackmail, copyright infringement and unauthorized access to any computers on the Internet or e-mail are forbidden.”

It further states that the system may not be used to transmit, receive, retrieve, store or reproduce any defamatory, discriminatory or harassing nature of materials that are obscene or offensive.

“No messages with derogatory or inflammatory remarks about an individual’s race, age, disability, religion, national origin, physical attributes or sexual preference shall be transmitted,” the manual states. “Harassment of any kind is prohibited.”

Sexually charged e-mail

After a confrontation at a meeting over county employees spending too much time on the Internet, Chairman John Glasscock blocked county computers from the news Web site al.com. Several weeks later someone leaked a sexually charged e-mail that the county’s ex-human resources director sent to Glasscock. A Channel 19 reporter obtained the e-mail and aired it.

Records from the county data processing department showed 160 visits between Scott and an employee to the news site between June 1 and 14. Scott said she never visited the chatroom the site hosts.

A chatroom on the site has a group of regulars who use monikers such as Dave 99, Lock and Load, Chainsaw 911 and Faxxx.

After the Dec. 28 meeting where the commission refused to get a court order for the hard drives, Dave 99 had this to say on the forum: “Enough is enough. We knew we had the votes when the Republican Executive Committee showed up at the commission meeting. George needs to back off now, his point has been made. Even if the records would have shown certain voting irregularities, it was not worth the invasion of the privacy of Mrs. Scott and Mr. Bartlett.”

The county’s personnel manual addresses hidden identity when using county computers.

“No e-mail or other electronic communications may be sent which hides the identity of the sender or represents the sender as someone else.”

George said he intended for the investigation to uncover whether the chat room posters were Morgan officials and employees.

“The county could be liable for allowing officials and employees to defame people’s good name and character,” George said Thursday. “And, since we had an opportunity to find out if someone from the county was doing this, and we dropped the ball, I just hope it doesn’t come back to haunt us. It’s highly possible for someone from the public to get these records and match them to county records.”

The commission fired the human resources director, but based on the manual, elected officials are exempt from disciplinary action if they break the rules.

The officials — and the people they place over records — can be held accountable under state law for failure to release public records. Any citizen has a right to request and take a copy of any public record.

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