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Better e-mail standard for county already here

March 24, 2002 

When Paul McIntosh was the county administrator, he resisted the idea of making electronic records more accessible to the public.

At every turn, his staff, presumably at his direction, made vague excuses about how it was technologically impractical to save all computer-generated communications, including e-mail, for inspection by the public, without compromising security and certain confidential records that are exempt from state law.

At the same time, McIntosh misled the County Commission into believing that all county employees had strictly adhered to the law so far, and that nothing could or should be done to improve upon the board's policy, save an educational briefing organized by County Attorney Garth Coller.

Now that McIntosh is no longer around to obstruct progress on this increasingly relevant topic, the County Commission should instruct its technology staff to take another look at the possibilities.

A good place to start would be a phone call to Superintendent Wendy Tellone at the Hernando County School Board.

Tellone, recognizing the importance of the issue, recently persuaded her board to make a relatively inexpensive $10,000 investment in a central computer that automatically archives all e-mail communications in the district and retains them for five years. It copies all incoming and outgoing messages, including communications between employees.

That's not just a good idea, it's the law, and Tellone's initiative demonstrates she respects it. That's why she moved quickly to get the new e-mail system in place as part of a comprehensive policy that also governs the retention of e-mail and a clear directive that it is to be used only for official, school-related business. The School Board has given tentative approval to the policy and is expected to formally adopt it April 2.

Here's the key difference between the philosophies and procedures of the School Board and the County Commission: The commission relies on the employee who receives or sends an e-mail to determine if it is a public record, and then consciously copy the message into a file where the public can view it. The School Board's system assumes all communications are public record and the computer automatically accomplishes the task of copying it into a central file that can be sorted by author and date.

Inexplicably, the County Commission was told early this year that such a system, if it even existed, would be far too expensive. Meanwhile, a little farther north on Broad Street in Brooksville, the School Board's user-friendly system was up and running.

McIntosh never wanted the public to have full access to his staff's e-mails. Even when pushed by board members Nancy Robinson and Diane Rowden to improve the system and the policy, he showed reluctance, and it was evident he regarded it as a necessary nuisance. That indifference has forced people seeking access to county government's electronic communications to guess which records exist and where they are stored.

That attitude and application is in stark contrast to Tellone, who has set a standard to which the commission and other government agencies should aspire.

Copyright © St. Petersburg Times

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