OLD LYME — Two years ago, Old Lyme created an email address through their FirstClass system for every board, commission and committee that comprise the town’s mostly volunteer government.
“We actually added an email address for every one of our boards and commissions. That was to make sure that information was preserved the way it was required by FOI,” said Cathy Frank, the executive assistant in the selectman’s office in Old Lyme.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in Connecticut makes all emails sent by government officials, including volunteers, about government matters public record.
“E-mail sent or received in the conduct of public business is a public record. Consequently, e-mail is subject to disclosure under FOIA, a court action, or an audit and should be treated in the same manner as any other recorded information,” according to the Frequently Asked Questions about FOIA in the state library.
The law covers all emails about public business, not just those sent or received by the town or state provided email. Therefore, if town or state officials use their private email instead it is not against the law, but it can create problems when someone – resident or journalist – submits a FOIA request.
If all correspondence was conducted using government-issued emails, “the theory is that the administrator could do a global search on a term in the entire email system,” and turn up any and all related emails, said Matt Reed, a staff attorney for the Connecticut State FOI commission. “If you are conducting business on a personal system there is no administrator that can ensure all materials are found…essentially you end up on the honor system.”
This past month in Old Lyme, the difficulty of using the FirstClass email system was discussed at both the Open Space Commission and the Recycling and Solid Waste Commission. Both groups primarily correspond with each other and with residents and reporters using private email addresses.
“The town has an outdated email system that is very unfriendly,” said Amanda Blair, the co-chair of the Open Space Commission meeting, during their June 14 meeting.
According to both Frank and first selectman Bonnie Reemsnyder, there have been no complaints made to them about the email system and report having no trouble with it themselves.
“They haven’t reported it to me and I can’t help them if they don’t tell me,” Frank said. “But quite a few of them do use it.”
The chair and other members of the Recycling and Solid Waste Committee also made comments about their dislike of the interface during the meeting.
Afterwards, the chair Leslie O’Connor said, “Regarding the town email…we were all speaking solely with regard to personal preference of email layout, etc.” She said that the email was not difficult to use. But the committee primarily communicates with each other to share agendas and post minutes. “Very simple use.”
Corresponding about the agenda and minutes is just fine, but what may seem like a simple use of email is not always that simple.
“If you send an email to members and are discussing substantive material, that’s a meeting. It needs notice, an agenda, to be held in a public space,” Reed said. When emails are sent like that, it is considered a secret meeting. “The challenges created by private email accounts are almost unlimited.”
Old Lyme provides a guide for boards, commissions and committees that offers details about the responsibilities of commission volunteer work including FOI.
“We provide a copy to each new volunteer. We also communicate throughout the year with Board chairs and meeting clerks with reminders about the required deadlines for posting of agendas & minutes,” Frank said.
The Region 18 board of education takes this one step further and has an initiation session with their attorney whenever a new member is elected.
“Throughout their tenure on the board there are constant reminders of what is acceptable and what is not regarding email,” Ian Neviaser, the superintendent of schools for Lyme Old Lyme Schools said. “Sometimes I will even put in an email ‘do not respond’ because I don’t want to accidently create a meeting.”
Although today every board of education member has an email through the district, that was not the case when Neviaser first arrived in Region 18 in 2012.
“When I first arrived, they were using their personal emails, but we quickly changed that and provided the board with district email accounts,” Neviaser said.
Neviaser said he has been lucky and never had an issue with anyone corresponding with their personal email since the change.
Not only are emails that are sent regarding government matters public records, they also are supposed to be archived and stored for a certain period of time depending on the content.
“Often times towns have an archiving system to capture emails in whatever the retention period is for the email,” Reed said. “If you are conducting business on a personal system there is no administrator that can ensure it is stored.”
The FOI commission holds an annual conference and the state’s public information officer does more than 100 presentations around the state each year on the topic of open records and FOIA compliance.
“We encourage town management to schedule a training session to give the nuts and bolts of FOI for all new volunteers,” Reed said.
Reemsnyder noted by email that Tom Hennick, a public education officer with the state Freedom of Information Commission has held several training sessions for the town.