Steamboat Springs City Council members surprised, angered, stumped by request for emails
Steamboat Springs — As more cities across Colorado and the nation put the email communications of their elected officials online for the public to review for free, city council members in Steamboat Springs are still communicating online with each other in a manner that concerns government transparency advocates.
And getting a hold of this council’s city-related email communications, many of which are sent and received on their personal, non-city email accounts, is difficult, and costly.
An open records request from Steamboat Today for all of the emails council members have sent one another about council business on those personal accounts was met earlier this month with a mix of anger, surprise and claims of technical ignorance from some of the city’s elected officials.
One councilman who uses a personal email account to communicate with other council members scolded Steamboat Today for the Aug. 13 request and said it had ruined his weekend.
Another said she regularly deletes any council-related emails on her personal account.
City Attorney Dan Foote said Monday he was expecting to receive about 2,000 emails from council members from their personal accounts by the end of the week.
He estimated it would then take city staff 20 to 30 hours to review the communications and screen out any privileged communications.
Four council members who started in November were asked for their communications throughout their tenure, while three council members who have served longer were asked to produce emails on personal accounts dating back to March 2015.
The request for the council’s emails could cost Steamboat Today as much as $900 to fulfill if it decides to pursue the emails, Foote said.
The council’s method of communication also raises questions about whether potential public records have been deleted and withheld from potential public release.
Foote said several of the emails he will review from the council do not have any city staff copied on them, meaning they would not have been archived on city servers and preserved as potential records for up to three years per current city policy.
Faced with the records request, the council on Tuesday agreed to consider adopting an email policy in the coming weeks.
Off the grid
Council members who send each other emails on their personal accounts, without copying city staff, communicate beyond the control of a city email server system that automatically preserves communications.
The city’s system also gives the city staff the ability to easily archive emails and review them for open records requests.
Foote confirmed several of the emails he will review are only between certain council members without staff included.
The council’s initial response to the records request also reveals some council members have a habit of regularly deleting potential public records on their personal accounts that would have been archived for three years on city servers had the communications been sent or received on their official city email accounts.
Others acknowledged they delete some communications they send or receive to free up storage.
Foote said he did not have any concerns about council using personal emails to communicate with each other.
“It’s no different than if they had called each other over the phone,” he said.
Jeff Roberts, the head of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, sees it differently.
He said last week the council’s consistent use of personal emails to communicate about council business was concerning.
“It does raise transparency concerns,” he said. “When an elected official uses his or her own personal email, which he or she has control over, they can empty the trash can, or double delete. It’s much harder for the public to get at that email communication or ensure they have been produced for records requests.”
He said emails have become some of the most valuable public records.
Roberts also said retention policies of emails are important, especially in the wake of recent controversies involving municipalities.
For example, he said if emails from city and state officials had not been preserved in Michigan for longer than a year in the wake of the Flint drinking water crisis, reporters would not have been able to gauge who knew what about the poor water quality, and when.
Preserved emails from public servants have also been valuable in Steamboat.
When many council members were tight lipped publicly about why they were seeking the resignation of former City Manager Deb Hinsvark, their emails shed light on their rocky relationship with the manager.
And when city officials refused to comment in June on the dismissal of their most recent airport manager, emails between the fired manager and Public Works Director Chuck Anderson revealed they had been butting heads for months over operations at the airport.
Rare, but now common
The request for the Steamboat City Council’s emails comes nearly eight years after previous council members told the Steamboat Today they rarely, if ever, communicated with each other via email outside of council meetings.
That doesn’t appear to be the case today.
After they got the email records request Aug. 13, several current council members said they needed a seven-day extension, on top of the initial three-day response time, under open records laws to respond to the request, because of the volume of the council-related communications they had to find on their personal accounts.
Councilwoman Heather Sloop said she didn’t have the technical skills to filter through and retrieve the emails.
Several council members enlisted Foote and the city’s legal team for help.
The records request angered Councilman Tony Connell, who uses his personal email accounts to discuss city business with other council members.
“You really know how to ruin a weekend with extra work,” Connell said in an email responding to the records request. “My kids and my house will thank you later.”
Connell suggested the newspaper should be focusing its efforts on other stories, such as the opioid epidemic, instead of requesting council’s emails.
A discouraged method
Steamboat Today is seeking the communications to gauge how much the council, which has resolved to build community trust, is discussing council business outside of public view on their personal email accounts.
Council President Walter Magill said he uses his personal account to send emails to other council members because it is more convenient than using the city account.
Asked what types of communications he sends, Magill said he’ll ask about such things as how public meetings went.
Councilwoman Kathi Meyer described her communications as mundane and not anything that would raise concerns about conducting illegal meetings by communicating in a quorum with each other outside of council chambers.
The use of personal emails for city business is discouraged or not allowed in several cities across the country and in Colorado.
Its use also has led to costly lawsuits in municipalities.
In 2014, the city of Bainbridge Island, Washington, was found to have violated that state’s Public Records Act by not turning over emails council members had sent via personal accounts.
The city had a policy that did not allow council members to use personal email accounts to discuss city business.
Several other cities have adopted policies in recent years that require elected officials to always forward any city-related emails they send or receive on a personal email account to their city account.
Councilwoman Meyer, who did not produce any emails to Foote because she regularly deletes any council communications on her personal account, said the council was not given any recommendations from legal staff about what email accounts to use when discussing city business.
Councilman Jason Lacy also acknowledged deleting some emails he receives from other council members, but he said other council members should be able to produce them.
Meyer initially was not able to respond to the records request via email because her personal email account had been hacked, and her computer was in a service center.
Roberts, of the Freedom of Information Coalition, said cities like Loveland, which just started putting council emails online for free, are taking steps that will boost government transparency.
He felt Steamboat was close to having a transparent email policy.
He praised the city’s three-year retention policy for council communications, but said it should take one more step.
“The missing piece of it is a policy that says you should use your city government email for public business,” Roberts said. And “your private email for letting your spouse know you’re picking up some milk from the grocery store.”
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