All of our council email is public record, and I feel that the public needs better access to it. Therefore, starting immediately, I will ask that my council email be printed and placed in a notebook for public review. I’m optimistic that this will set a positive example for other elected officials, help reduce the number of Freedom of Information Requests, and save taxpayers money. When I shared this idea with Councilman Denis Law, he loved the idea, and immediately told me he wants to do the same thing. The same was true when I mentioned it to Councilman Don Person. I stopped my conversations after speaking with two of them, but I’m hoping other councilmembers will follow suit.
With so many projects going on in Renton recently, and email becoming an increasingly significant share of council and mayor correspondence, the city of Renton is awash in email-related Freedom of Information requests. This is because unlike council and mayoral letters, which historically get logged into a file for inspection by the public, email is generally kept from the public unless the public files a Freedom of Information request.
The worsening situation has left some elected officials berating members of the public for filing ‘too many’ Freedom of Information Requests, and we now have a citizen making Freedom of Information Requests specifically to find out what Freedom of Information Requests others have filed.
In addition to generating hard feelings, unfair criticism, and suspicion, the current trend is becoming increasingly expensive to taxpayers. The 2007 budget adds a new assistant to the clerks office, at an approximate cost of $50,000 per year, primarily to handle the paperwork associated with the growing number of Freedom of Information Requests. This paperwork consists of countless word-searches and phrase-searches of email records, followed by packaging a separate box of email printouts for each request. A single email message with the word “Landing” or “police” for instance, could end up in a public records box dozens of times, and never actually be an email that the public is very interested in. The money to do this digging, photocopying, and packaging could be saved by taxpayers or used on something more productive if our elected-official email records were simply printed one time and placed in notebooks for public inspection, so citizens could do their own searches. Other cities in our state and nation have been moving toward such systems.
The notebook system would really just serve as a stepping stone toward the best system of all, which would be to have all of the email electronically recorded into a log that the public could read and search on the web. After being set up, such a system would cost virtually nothing to administer, and would be excellent for keeping the public informed.
I received significant pushback from one of the other council members when I suggested we consider making all our email public (before we budgeted and hire the new clerk), so I do not expect to have a consensus right away on making our email public.
However, it occurred to me that I do not need other council member’s agreement to set an example by making all of my own council email public, and challenging my colleagues to do the same. So, starting immediately, I will do my part to restore openness in government, save taxpayer money, and try to stem the need for Freedom of Information Requests. I have asked our council liaison to put print-outs of all my council email (which she already creates for city archives) into a public notebook in her office where any member of the public can review it. I suspect this will amount to two or three large notebooks over the course of a year, and if the email is simply inserted in the order received, the retrieval should be pretty easy. Citizens will find that most of my email has been received by all members of council, so this action will significantly improve public awareness of email correspondence between Renton elected officials and the public. In addition, the public will find occasional dialogue between me and a constituent, or me and one or more council colleagues (but never a majority); this will help the public understand my personal motivations for making the decisions I make.
Note that privileged information regarding land acquisition, personnel matters, collective bargaining, and litigation never come to me via email, so this is not a concern.
Also note that I use a separate personal email account for correspondence with friends and family, and for political campaign activities. In fact, by law these can not be done over the taxpayer-funded city system. On the rare occasions that a constituent emails me only at home or work regarding my official city duties, I will forward the email to my city hall account where it will be included in the above public files.