The Norman Transcript

April 15, 2013

Creating more transparency has snags

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The Oklahoma State Legislature posts bill-tracking capability online and lawmaking sessions can be viewed via home computer.

Norman posts most city documents on its website and broadcasts city council meetings via television and internet so residents and other interested parties can watch meetings from the comfort of their homes.

Never have governments had more capability, enabled by technology, to be more open and transparent. And never have governments had more challenges to protecting basic open meetings and open records laws than in the current technological age.

Maintaining records for greater transparency: Three years ago, Norman city leaders became aware of the need to maintain electronic records as a means of satisfying open records requests allowed by state statute.

“Somebody came to me after they found out there was no policy on email,” City Council member Tom Kovach said. “Without a policy, everyone makes their own decisions.”

A person had made an email request under the open records law, but that request could not be fulfilled. Kovach learned that city staff were sometimes deleting emails daily — including emails that contained records of transactions, financials and other important exchanges.

The Norman City Council responded and, in July 2010, passed a resolution requiring the city to keep email transactions for one year.

“When I wrote the resolution, I did it based on policy of what state governmental agencies were doing in order to provide the same protection for electronic documents as we have for paper documents,” Kovach said.

That resolution resulted in the city saving everything, including junk mail. Now city email archives are filling up and the city council may be asked to authorize $16,000 to purchase cyber storage space.

Assistant City Attorney Rick Knighton and Kari Madden, of the city’s IT department, told members of the City Council Oversight Committee that culling out junk email is not possible under the current system.

While the city’s system filters most spam before it ever hits the server, under the current resolution, whatever junk mail gets through and onto the server will be archived along with everything else.

Incoming emails from residents are subject to open records: That archiving includes all correspondence from residents to city council members or city staff.

Knighton said many people may not realize any email a person sends to city staff or members of city council is subject to open record requests by the public. That includes brief emails from family members, complaints from the public and any junk email that makes it through the filtering process.

All of that mail — relevant records and otherwise — adds up over the course of a year and Madden said buying cyber storage space will continue to be a need every few years, unless the city council clarifies its intentions and modifies the resolution.

“How do you define the term ‘record’?” Knighton said. “The server saves everything.”

Solutions include giving the user choices on what should be saved, shortening the time frame that messages are kept to less than a year or buying cyber storage space.

“From the staff perspective, we don’t care which one of those they select,” Knighton said. “We are keeping a bunch of junk, and over time, you will probably see requests for appropriations from staff.”

Right now, if Knighton receives an unsolicited email, he cannot keep it from going into the archive to be stored for a year.

“Although I have the ability to delete what’s on the active server, nobody has the ability to delete anything from the archive,” he said.

Kovach said that is the price of making sure everything that should be saved under the law is saved.

“I was told not long after we passed it that there might need to be some clarification of what our intent was,” Kovach said. “Tulsa is going through something like this, and they are going to shorten the length.”

While the problem is not unique to Norman, Kovach doesn’t like Tulsa’s solution. He thinks a $16,000 investment to purchase storage space that will last five to seven years is not a huge investment to make to protect the public’s interest.

Joy Hampton



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