Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Tuesday

April 15, 2014

Editorial: Board's email gyrations can't keep public out

The Grand Traverse County Road Commission recently voted unanimously to provide all five board members with road commission-owned iPads and establish road commission email addresses.

The move, they said, would achieve a number of goals, including saving paper, improving communication and cutting back on wasted staff time.

But clearly, the overarching reason, was to protect commissioners’ personal emails and personal computers from outside scrutiny — and keep the public at arm’s length.

At a January meeting Board Chairman Marc McKellar said using personal computers and email addresses could open board members to unwanted scrutiny,

Using personal devices “... subjects all of our personal equipment and email and everything to, you know, wide open, where they can come in and look at it all,” McKellar said. “Seize your computer and everything.”

Though he didn’t say who he meant by “they” it probably means you — taxpayers — other local officials, law enforcement and the media.

At a March meeting he said creating commission email accounts can ensure that board members’ personal equipment is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests “or anything at all.”

Perhaps. But there are two underlying assumptions here that don’t wash.

One presumption is that under an FOIA request, every email you’ve ever sent or received must be turned over to the anonymous “they” to be pawed through for personal data, or that someone will burst through the front door and grab your home computer.

In fact, Freedom of Information requests have to specify which emails are being sought, such as anything related to Road Commission business. These aren’t fishing expeditions to find out what you wrote to your brother or ex-girlfriend. If it’s not germane to official business, it doesn’t have to be turned over.

Secondly, McKellar assumes board members won’t try to make an end-run around the system. Having a Road Commission-issued email address doesn’t prevent commissioners from talking about Commission business via their home or business emails or by creating a dozen new email accounts to get messages under the table. If a personal email relates to road commission business, it’s fair game, the same as an email sent to an official road commission address.

Creating road commission email accounts makes sense; buying everyone an iPad not so much. Doing it just as the commission has laid off 17 employees for a few weeks to save money is, at best, tone-deaf.

In the end this is all public business and the public has a right to know — no matter which email address someone uses.

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