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Email Migration Derails FOIA Requests in Gainesville, Fla.

Flaws in the recent move to a new email system have caused long delays for Freedom of Information Act requests, potentially opening the city up to litigation. The delays and blame are points of contention for officials.

(TNS) — A flaw in a recent email migration at City Hall has opened Gainesville up to possible litigation for its unreasonable time to fulfill record requests, or so some city officials fear.

The city's IT department had recently upgraded its email system for more storage and better performance. But a July records request from The Sun — that has taken six weeks to only partially fulfill — has thrown City Hall's ability to obtain those records into question.

City officials say the request has made them realize that they are unable to easily access deleted emails and that the ongoing snafu will leave citizens who want records waiting longer than usual and being charged for the extra work.

"My concern is the technology issues associated with the migration has created a system that doesn't allow the employees to comply with (Freedom of Information Act) requests in a timely manner," said Deborah Bowie, interim city manager.

Around April, the city's IT department, run by Gainesville Regional Utilities, began switching email systems. About two months later, The Sun made a request for City Commission emails after the online portal began publishing some emails weeks apart. Some of the 20,097 obtained records show hidden notifications of commissioners meeting with developers, community leaders or show people asking elected officials to help waive permit fees.

City Clerk Omichele Gainey said the request pinpointed an issue that her office was unable to control, which caused a delay. Bowie said the glitch restricts staff from accessing some emails on their own.

GRU spokesman David Warm said there was a period of time when accessing emails was a problem, but that IT can retrieve those communications easily.

An email sent two days later, however, from GRU Chief Information Officer Walter Banks shows that the system is still a concern and that all email record requests must be forwarded to IT. The time to retrieve and review those emails, which are stored on two separate systems, will be estimated and bring costs that will be sent to those making requests.

Warm said GRU had worked on the newspaper's request for less than a week and that the holdup wasn't on its end. The clerk's office argues otherwise. Alachua County fulfilled a similar request within a day.

Regardless of who's at fault, Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said a month's delay is "unreasonable."

"There's no reason they should take a month," she said.

The request was made around the time the City Commission's online portal began to skip weeks' worth of emails. At the time, commissioners were discussing altering the system to further delay the publishing information, along with limiting public comment.

Commissioners have said the changes will result in enhanced communication, protect sensitive information from being published and that it won't hinder transparency. But not everyone sees it that way.

"It all shows a picture of a City Commission that feels less information is better," Petersen said.

The email portal leads some residents to believe that the commission's emails are all readily accessible, but that's not the case. In fact, they are only a fraction of what's actually there, showing less than 10% of all commission emails.

Among the emails obtained, which were previously unavailable, were a labor union president's concern with a reduced pension fund, invitations to UF football games, warnings of Ransomware attacks, communications with a Utility Advisory Board member, ads for sexual performance products, a coupon for dog poop bags and a spammer demanding $20,000 in bitcoin for the release of a video that purported to show an elected official performing a sex act.

Commissioners already have the ability to hide emails before they hit the portal by marking them "unread" or "do not publish." Commissioner Helen Warren appears to use this feature more often than others. Some commissioners allow a month to go by before any emails are published online.

In July, Commissioner David Arreola had a 16-day span where only five emails appeared in the portal, making up 2% of the actual emails that came in. The Sun's request yielded 227 different emails for that time, showing previously hidden meetings with developers, city lobbyists and a nonprofit trying to get out of paying a $1,600 permit fee.

The emails also showed he met with developers working with Weyerhaeuser, which is proposing a 1,300-home subdivision sprawled over nearly 1,800 acres for what could be the city's largest development in its history.

Most commissioners don't use their emails to communicate. Odds are that if you email them, you're unlikely to get a response, though some are better about that than others. The vast majority of the emails are meeting notifications with staff members, constituents or spam. None of the emails obtained contained sensitive or private information.

©2019 The Gainesville Sun, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.