News from the Tennessee Valley State, Local and National news

Morgan puts
e-mail policy
on hold

Some criticism of proposals
valid, county attorney says

By Sheryl Marsh 340-2437

The Morgan County Commission did not act Friday on two policy proposals drafted by its attorney to govern viewing e-mails that would have undermined citizens' rights to look at public records.

Instead, County Attorney Bill Shinn presented a revised proposal and told commissioners they were far from adopting a policy.

The commission was set to vote on a policy for viewing e-mails and was to discuss destroying electronic public records.

Shinn stressed that the policies he released earlier this week were rough drafts that had drawn criticism from the newspaper (The Daily). He said that "some of it was very valid."

Commissioners began looking at ways to handle access to electronic records after Commissioner Stacy George attempted to view e-mails on one of the county's seven servers. George's attempt was blocked and came after commissioners ended an investigation of inappropriate e-mails on county computers.

Computers of the revenue commissioner, sheriff and former probate judge were not checked after those officials objected, saying the computers contained sensitive information.

Fee proposal deleted

Shinn's original draft suggested charging 50 cents per page for a record. He deleted the fee, leaving it to commissioners to decide. In addition to the copy fee he added a provision stating that if a person asks for an unspecified number of e-mails, there would be an additional charge, an hourly rate or fraction of it to reimburse the county for the expense of researching the requested records.

The proposed policy now states that the elected official or department head would be in charge of approving which e-mails are to be released to a person requesting the records.

Although citizens have a right to look at a public record, Shinn's proposal states that the data processing employee would print the requested e-mails and give them to the department head or elected official who would give them to the person seeking the records.

State law mandates that every citizen has a right to personally inspect and to take a copy of any public record.

Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, said officials who set high fees do so to either deter citizens from viewing records or to make a profit.

Citizens interested in public records were at the meeting.

James Ray Bowling said he feels it would be wrong for an elected official or department head to determine which e-mails to release to the public.

He said they would have the opportunity to hide e-mails that would show inappropriate conversation.

Shinn said that's a trust issue and people should not feel that way about their elected officials.

"Trust is earned, not given," Bowling told Shinn.

George said the public should be able to look at the e-mails and not have someone give them what they want them to have. He said computer terminals like the one in the circuit clerk's office should be made available for the public to look at the e-mails.

The commission also discussed retention of records. Morgan County Archivist John Allison said all routine correspondence must be kept for three years. That would cover e-mails sent and received on county computers.

He left copies of retention schedules to be given to all departments and each commissioner.

George pointed out that e-mails now on the county server date to October 2005. Therefore, these records are not up for destruction.

A citizen, defending his right to view public records Friday, fired questions at the commission and Chairman John Glasscock.

Terry McNutt of Danville had a list of questions he asked the commission about e-mails and a recent investigation of inappropriate e-mails.

His first question was whether e-mails sent or received on county computers were public.

Shinn said they are.

As McNutt proceeded to ask other questions Glasscock interrupted saying, "This is not a question/answer session." McNutt said he realized that and planned to leave questions with the commissioners.

Before concluding, McNutt commented about the fee that Shinn initially proposed that citizens pay per copy of public records.

"We can't afford to pay 50 cents or 75 cents a copy," McNutt said.

Then, he told Glasscock, "This (e-mail) controversy is not going to go away. I personally am not going to let it go away. John, it's not going to go away, buddy, until you retire."

The root of the e-mail investigation is a sexually charged e-mail that Glasscock received from the county's ex-human resources director. Glasscock sent it to others outside the courthouse.

The county fired the director, but because Glasscock is an elected official, personnel rules do not apply to him.

George asked Glasscock to resign in December when the commission ended the probe. Glasscock said he will remain in office.

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