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Removal of City Hall Transparency Kiosk Sparks Criticism

A kiosk that allowed Sarasota, Fla., residents to view city emails was removed in February 2017 and not replaced. Some see the move as an end run around transparency and accountability.

(TNS) — SARASOTA, Fla. — Instant public access to the emails of hundreds of Sarasota city officials and employees has been restricted by the city in a move some citizens and public records experts call an abandonment of transparency and erosion of public trust.

The removal more than a year ago of a city hall kiosk containing access to the emails of hundreds of city employees only recently gained attention after some commissioners discovered immediate access to the emails was revoked. Public access to emails is available online, but only a fraction of the previously viewable emails are shown, prompting an increase in public records requests, citizen complaints and questions about the city's motives.

"Government should never be in the business of making it more difficult for citizens to find out how they are being governed," said Michael Barfield, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and an expert on Florida's Public Records Act and Sunshine Law.

"Generally, the city does a good job at being transparent, but in this case, it was a step back," Barfield added.

The online portal shows only emails between two or more of the five elected commissioners, city manager, city attorney and city auditor and clerk. The state's Sunshine Law, which prohibits elected officials from discussing public business outside of a public meeting, means there are likely no emails among commissioners.

City hall watchdog and former commission candidate Martin Hyde estimates less than 10 percent of the previously accessible emails are available online.

"This, to my mind, is an egregious backdoor attempt to shutting down the legitimate route for the public to know what's going on at city hall," Hyde said at a recent commission meeting. "As it stands now, the only way to get information is to know of the existence of a subject in the first place and to ask for the information under a public records request. There is no honest reason to do this."

The removal of the kiosk occurred in February 2017 because the city was updating and upgrading its computer system, the city's senior communications manager Jan Thornburg said in an email.

"I'm unaware of any municipality which provides computer access to all employees, as the city of Sarasota did for many years until the software (Archive Manager) could no longer support the system," Thornburg said. "From an IT standpoint, this is the standard policy for government agencies."

The move has decreased the city's vulnerability to a cyberattack and has a cost savings of about $10,000 annually, officials said.

"The changes we've made over the last 18 months or more also were being done with the backdrop of security," City Manager Tom Barwin said. "We were subject to some pretty extensive ransomware demands ... which were related to some attempts to hack into our system."

A ransomware virus crippled Sarasota City Hall computer systems in 2016. It was the worst cyberattack in the city's history, encrypting 160,000 city files and demanding up to $33 million in the virtual currency Bitcoin to unlock them.

Still, Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie is calling for a report on the kiosk's removal — detailing who made the decision, the reasoning for it and the benefits.

"The ability to access all of those emails has been restricted. I want to know why," Freeland Eddie said.

The move has prompted citizen complaints, increased public records requests and more work for the clerk's office to compile the requested information, City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini said.

"I'm certainly not against the city's efforts, but I value transparency and my office is all about transparency and having the ability to provide a vehicle where the public can come in and feel good about getting information that they're interested in and be on their way," Nadalini said. "That's what government is all about."

Public records experts called on the city to restore access or grant it online, although there is no law requiring the city to do so.

"Ideally, we'd like to see them eventually expand what's available online and allow access to the same kinds of stuff that they were able to get on the public portal," Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, said.

Barfield agreed.

"It's central to our democracy that citizens have oversight functions of their government," Barfield said. "And I know sometimes the government doesn't like it, but that's the consent by which we allow them to govern us."

The records are still available through a public records request, city officials insist. Some requests, depending on how extensive, could require a fee, officials said.

But Hyde argues citizens no longer have the crumb trail to dig up important records to hold the government accountable.

"If there's nothing to hide, why hide anything?" Hyde asked.

©2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.