While the complaints cover a wide range of city business, officials say frustration over the public email system has fueled the flames and created a toxic atmosphere at city meetings.
(TNS) — GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mayor Lauren Poe and other city officials in this college town spent part of their day on July 18 exchanging emails about proposed development projects, replying to resident complaints, discussing changes to local laws and more.
Anyone with an Internet connection could follow along. The city posts their emails online.
Then they faced an angry crowd at a city commission meeting, many of whom were upset about the email system.
Across the city, journalists and public information watchdogs were crying foul over stretches of emails that never showed up online. Residents were reduced to tears by some of the ones that did show up and exposed an exchange they thought would be private. Some city officials had started trying to find a way to work around the system, creating even more frustration.
"You don't answer your emails," resident Nathan Skop said during the public comment section of that day's meeting. "The email system is completely broken."
Anger escalated. One woman started a "sit-in" in front of the commission panel. Some were escorted out of the chamber, and others left in solidarity. "This is like a sham!" yelled one. "It is a sham!" came a reply from the crowd.
While the complaints covered a wide range of city business, officials say frustration over the public email system has fueled the flames and created a toxic atmosphere at city meetings. "It's weaponized," said Lindsay Hoffman, who handles public oversight for the city.
It all began with the idea of becoming the most transparent city government in the nation.
Five years ago, a different group of city leaders embraced the idea of an online email system, following the example of a similar email archive set up by Alachua County. But Hoffman said the idea for the process was never clearly laid out, and it was voted in as part of a consent agenda against the advice of the city's attorney.
"When the commission made the motion to do this, they had the expectation that emails would be reviewed before they were posted to this public portal," Commission Clerk Omi Gainey said. "That is the rub. That never happened."
Instead, any email that's read or sent by the mayor or a city commissioner would go public within 24 hours. That's when the problems started.
People were emailing city officials without realizing their email would be published, and there was no way to notify them in advance. "The commissioners have described having people sitting in their office crying because their boss found out what they said about a problem at work, or that their neighbor found out they were the one reporting their barking dog," Hoffman said.
Any city idea that was suggested, no matter how far-flung, became the talk of the town. After a spate of dog attacks, a commissioner pointed out another city that limits the number of pets that each homeowner can have and asked if that could be a possibility for Gainesville. "It was not something we were considering [immediately], but it's one of the options that was out there. Now there are signs up at every dog park that say the city is going to limit how many pets you can own and that you need to contact the commission," Hoffman said.
"It makes it very hard to do the actual work of governing when you're having to put out all these fires."
City spokesman Chip Skinner said in July that City Hall was being flooded with requests for interviews and information based on "obscure" emails and that the city didn't have the manpower to manage the requests. By the end of August, Skinner was no longer employed by the city.
Some city officials started using their own workaround: If they're marked as "unread," they never go public. Weeks started going by with few emails showing up on the public portal.
After a public records request, the Gainesville Sun reported August 23 that only about 10 percent of all emails were winding up online.
"Currently we have a group within our commission that won't check email or won't mark anything as read," Gainey said.
That's created a backlash in this city of 135,000 people, a place that's highly educated and highly engaged. Innovation hubs, forward-thinking government experts and freedom of information advocates are sprinkled across the University of Florida campus, blocks away from City Hall.
The journalism school alone has 550 students, none of whom will graduate without filing a public records request.
"[The city] has not just current students and faculty but tons of retired faculty. People have both the time and means to engage," said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at UF. "That's why you see the city of Gainesville has more progressive than average policies when it comes to the disclosure of information.
"If you're an elected official, you know you can't thumb your nose at the public."
Florida's Sunshine Laws have long been considered among the nation's most progressive, protecting the public's right to information in a sweeping way. But there's also been an effort to erode those protections, particularly on the state level.
The state started with the premise that everything was open but has added dozens of exemptions to those laws each year. It currently has 1,300 exemptions to its Sunshine Laws, and about 18 percent of all proposed bills in each new legislative session touch on those laws.
"There's really not the facts or evidence there to justify some of these [exemptions]," said Dan Bevarly, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
On the other hand, municipal governments don't always have the resources to challenge lawsuits or change the process, meaning they are often more open, particularly in the Sunshine State. "In Florida, you can make a public records request with any public official, and they have to take your request," Bevarly said. "While a lot of people will tout it as showing extreme sunshine and openness, it's also an administrative challenge."
His group has been studying systems used by cities like New Orleans, Palo Alto, California, and Washington that are built to handle public records requests. "Anecdotally, we're seeing that using the online public request portals provides a quicker response from the municipality. It's easier to track it, but there's also an accountability," Bevarly said.
"It's going to continue to have an impact as more public records requests come through because people are getting bottlenecked on this stuff."
Bobbie Griffith and her team have a different problem.
They've built an online portal filled with city information, set up and managed under a different charter than the email system. There's a crime map that shows incidents, down to a specific address. There's an online "checkbook" that shows city vendors and costs of services. In all, it has 42 datasets, and 33 of them are now constantly updated and fed in automatically.
It was built up over years, with backing from open data groups, coding help from UF and input from city staff. They've worked to streamline everything and keep adding the most requested public information. Commissioners use it to help make budget decisions, and Gainesville police use it for patrols.
But they've struggled to find much of an audience outside the UF campus, even with more than 1,800 unique views last month. "We know that a lot of those are from students and researchers," said Griffith, the city's director of strategic initiatives. "When we get feedback (about data), generally it comes from UF."
So, city Data Analyst Yai Adegbola said they're focused on building things like easy-to-use dashboards, better visualizations like charts and graphs, and even an app that will combine and personalize city information for each person. "They'll put their address in, and it'll pop up with all the different datasets that are specific to that (location)," Adegbola said.
They're also planning to engage more with the public to show them how it can help, even as people clamor for emails from a different part of city government.
"We need to change their minds on using more data for decision making," Adegbola said. "Some of the public will tell you, 'We don't need that.' Cultural change is really key.
"That's something we'll be working on for, I don't know, the next 100 years," he laughed.
Gainey said she believes the city is committed to working through the problems with its open email system and has no plans to abandon it. They've looked at options for recalling messages or delaying publication for a set amount of time. They've talked about adding an email submission form that would alert people that anything contained in the email would be made public.
"Our focus has been putting systems and policies in place ... so that people have something they can follow," Gainey said.
For now, emails continue to flow in, but only when city officials mark them as "read." Otherwise, they must be discovered through a Freedom of Information Act request.
And while state laws can help, LoMonte said the real key to public information is that officials must be willing to comply.
"One of the dirty secrets of public records is that we're all on the honor system," LoMonte said. "The requester is always at a disadvantage because you don't know what you don't know. If somebody says, 'I have no emails that fit the description of your request,' then that's what you're stuck with.
"A person who's ill-motivated and has a heavy finger on the delete key is probably going to get away with that, especially now, when there's not a lot of resources to file lawsuits."
©2019 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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