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New policy may cut records access
Morgan residents may be required to use own computers to view public documents

By Sheryl Marsh · 340-2437

If the Morgan County Commission adopts a proposed policy on viewing public electronic records, you might be deprived of your right to look at public records if you don't have a computer.

An Alabama Press Association attorney said the proposal is not acceptable.

County Attorney Bill Shinn is offering commissioners two proposals.

One states that a disk would be made of e-mails that anyone requests, and the individual making the request must view it on his own equipment.

Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, said citizens have a right to view the electronic records before requesting a copy.

"The general practice is that if you have electronic data, that you have a terminal available for public use during business hours," said Bailey. "The public should be able to look at public records at no charge, and if they want a copy, they would pay the set fee."

A high fee proposal?

In another proposal Shinn suggests that county officials make copies of requested e-mails and give them to the person who makes the request. The fee would be 50 cents per copy and before printing copies the person seeking the records would be given an estimate of anticipated costs. Also, the person would be required to make a deposit prior to printing the documents.

Bailey said the proposed fee is high.

"The attorney general has said on several occasions that they can charge no more than their actual cost for retrieving and generating a copy," Bailey said.

He said if a petitioner legally challenged the fee, charges of a local business that makes copies would help determine if the fee is excessive. For instance, if a business charged a dime per copy, then 50 cents would be considerably expensive.

Bailey said high fees are usually set to "either deter people from getting copies or to generate revenue."

Access to public records has become an issue as the result of sexually charged e-mails on a fired county department head's hard drive and the hard drive of Chairman John Glasscock. The investigation ended after a forensics computer expert foundno such e-mails on the hard drives of other county commissioners, License Commissioner Sue Roan and her deputy license commissioner, and 12 other department heads. Because they objected, computers of Sheriff Greg Bartlett and his employees, Revenue Commissioner Amanda Scott, Board of Registrars Chairwoman Adonis Bailey and retired Probate Judge Bobby Day were not part of the inspection.

Both of Shinn's proposals state that elected officials and department heads will make a list of e-mails, which they believe are exempt from public disclosure.

Personal e-mails sent or received on county computers are public, a state official said.

"We regard materials created or received in the course of conducting public business to be public records," said Tracey Berezansky, assistant director for government records of the state Department of Archives and History. "Just because I say I am doing something personal, does not mean it's not open for public viewing."

Perhaps, one of the more famous comments on personal e-mail use is from President Bush. In an interview, he said he did not use e-mail because someone would file for it.

Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said 99 percent of the county records are public and they follow the law in releasing public records.

"We follow the state code and basically we consider everything public record," Joiner said. "Electronic records are public also, and all of our computer terminals are available if anybody wants to look something up."

Joiner said there's basically no such thing as personal e-mails.

"We have a strict e-mail policy," he said. "When employees come to work here, they sign a form concerning personal use and illicit e-mails, which is not tolerated. This is county-owned equipment and if it is used for personal use, it becomes public record."

Also, Joiner said the county disposes of records in compliance with a schedule generated through the state archives department.

"Sometimes we keep some records longer than required, Joiner explained. "And before we dispose of them, we put them on a computer disk."

He said there are backup disks for all records, including electronic records.

The Calhoun Commission office does not charge a fee for copies of public records, an employee said.

Shinn's proposal does not mention destruction of public records, but District 1 Commissioner Jeff Clark said commissioners will discuss that at the commission meeting Friday.

If Morgan officials decide to include a clause to destroy records, they must abide by state law in doing so. Tampering with or destroying public records is punishable by a year in jail.

Berezansky said there are state laws that govern destruction of public records and there is a plan designed specifically for county government.

The archives department has a Local Government Records Commission, which is responsible for determining which local government records are to be permanently preserved based on historical value and those that may be destroyed.

"Basically, no county, municipality or other government entity can destroy any record without approval and that would include e-mails because an e-mail is a public record," said Berezansky.

A Records Disposition Authority governs county commissions throughout the state to deal with destroying records, Berezansky said.

There is a schedule the Records Commission created that shows the length of time counties and municipalities must keep records before destroying them.

It is settled law that a policy of a county commission cannot supersede state law. State law says individuals have a right to inspect and to take a copy of any public record. State law also says which records are not public. Federal law is a factor, too. Records may be requested under the Freedom of Information Act when federal money or issues are involved.

The Morgan County Commission will have a work session at 1 p.m. Friday and a meeting will follow at 2 p.m.

Morgan County e-mail policy

Morgan County’s current policy for electronic communications states:

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

The policy also states that personal telephone, cellular phone and radio usage is extremely limited for personal usage, and is to be monitored monthly for misuse.

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