Council members say they have nothing to hide

Last updated: September 29. 2013 11:55PM - 2756 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com

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Emails Luzerne County Council members exchange with each other and the county manager are set to be posted on the county website starting this week — an unusual public offering in Pennsylvania.

County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said he has heard of online posting of local government officials’ emails in California and Florida but not Pennsylvania.

Doug Hill, head of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said counties are increasingly embracing opportunities to provide public information through their websites, but he doesn’t know of any counties posting emails.

Council members initiated the online posting earlier this year, saying it will eliminate processing of Right-to-Know requests for their emails and show they have nothing to hide.

County Manager Robert Lawton also requested to be part of the posting, which means the emails he exchanges with council members will be publicly released.

“I think it’s a great move forward,” said county Council Chairman Tim McGinley.

The emails will be subject to online release starting Oct. 1. Pedri said they will be posted once a week at www.luzernecounty.org, with the first posting tentatively slated for Friday.

Pedri advised council against sending each other emails containing information that isn’t subject to release, such as discussions about pending litigation or certain personnel information.

He has decided to review the emails before they are posted, at least initially, to make sure they are not disclosing information that is exempt from public release.

The emails citizens sent to a council member won’t be publicly posted unless the council member forwards the information to one or more council colleagues, Pedri said.

County Information Technology Director Steve Englot estimates he will spend about a half hour per week rounding up and posting the emails but said there is no additional expense to offer the service.

Some citizens scolded council members earlier this year for discussing county matters through email.

Their criticism stemmed from Councilman Elaine Maddon’s reference during a council meeting to a council “email exchange” she read about the topic of filling council vacancies.

While some council members never share views through emails, the responses of those who do are often copied to all 11 council members.

“If you want open government, this is the place to discuss it — not private emails,” West Wyoming resident Ray Gustave told council in March.

Kingston resident Brian Shiner, who faithfully attends meetings, said he and other citizens he’s spoken to do not know what to expect from the online posting.

“If they use the county email solely to communicate, it’s a positive step, but if they switch to private email and phone calls, it will do an end-run around the goal of making the emails public,” Shiner said.

The sharing of county information through email started accelerating in January 2004, when then-Commissioner Todd Vonderheid complained hand-delivered memos were required to invite row officers to a meeting. The employees and officials who had email at the time didn’t pay much attention to it because prior commissioners rarely used email to convey messages.

Lawton also said he will be posting a “check register” on the county website this month listing each payment — another first for the county. The register will be published monthly and allow citizens to track the spending of county funds as they would in their own checking account, he said.

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