NORTH PORT — North Port commissioners on Wednesday stopped placing their city email messages on a public access database.
That’s because some citizens reading commission email on that open site would get irate learning that his or her neighbor had complained about his dog barking or her high weeds.
Suddenly private conversation went public.
“Citizens aren’t being protected,” Vice Mayor Jill Luke said in pushing to stop the practice. “Scooping in every email, to dig up dirt, to me, it’s despicable.”
Emails to and from commissioners are open records that can be made available through citizen requests under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal transparency law, as well as Florida’s “Sunshine” public records law. Once that information is released, it is placed on a North Port database that anyone may access and view. The Freedom of Information request could include a day’s worth of email that has pages of other dialogue, some of it sensitive, even hurtful.
Often one neighbor will learn, for example, that another had complained to a commissioner about him or her, which invited hard feelings, even retaliation, Luke said. She had asked the other four commissioners to stop the city clerk’s office from placing such email traffic on the city’s archive, which is public. Commissioner Vanessa Carusone was the only “no” vote in that request.
The issue arose during a daylong commission hearing that touched on several topics, which included a motion by Mayor Debbie McDowell to freeze commission pay — it died for lack of support — and a measure to push the city’s nine activity centers on social media, possibly renaming them and building the centers as economic opportunities.
The city is also striking an agreement with the Sarasota County School District to broaden access to the new Aquatic Center, it was learned Wednesday.
But the issue of public scrutiny of commission email dialogue generated some heat. Commissioners in January had instructed Clerk Heather Taylor to research how other communities dealt with such matters. Taylor recommended an “all or nothing” approach Wednesday, meaning the city shouldn’t be selective in what it places on the archived site.
“It will be duplicated work,” Taylor said of screening select emails for public access.
Carusone in voting against the majority said: “Safest way is to put things out there. It’s public record … people should have access to to it. That’s the point.”