Bainbridge council to receive public records primer, again

The Bainbridge Island City Council will get an education on the state’s Open Records Act after the recent revelation that council members have been using personal email accounts for city business.

At the city council meeting July 1, Councilman Bob Scales requested that the council receive an overview on the state’s public records laws, as well as the city’s governance manual. He specifically pointed to regulations restricting the use of personal email accounts for city business.

It is an issue that each council has had to deal with in the past, Scales told his colleagues, and it’s about time that the current council gets up to speed.

The council scheduled a primer on public records with the city’s attorney for Aug. 7.

Scales said Tuesday morning that he is not aware of any specific violations of the Public Records Act or the city’s governance manual, rather, he has come across emails from fellow islanders discussing the concern.

He also noted the Review’s June 28 editorial that identified Councilmen David Ward, Steve Bonkowski and Councilwoman Sarah Blossom as using their personal email accounts for city business.

Blossom has been the only council member who has turned over emails from her private email account in response to a recent public records request. The emails between council members showed elected officials corresponding about the appropriateness of adding a new employee to the city’s surface water utility, and whether the Utilities Advisory Committee must abide by the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Scales said he didn’t have details on those recent emails, but wanted to instigate a broader conversation.

“I don’t know all the specifics. I don’t know if there are any emails that council members are refusing to disclose,” Scales said. “It would be good to have a public discussion so the public and the council are informed as to what the proper procedures are for handling public documents.”

Under the city’s governance manual, council members are directed to use their city provided email accounts. That way, when a public records request is made, it is easy for city employees to search for and retrieve public records.

Scales noted that council members should automatically be forwarding emails about city business that are sent to their personal accounts.

“Often people will get something in their personal email about city business. We have a requirement to forward those onto our city email so they can be searched,” Scales said.

“It’s not just a transparency issue, it’s a huge liability issue,” he added. “The city could be penalized up to $100 a day per record that is not disclosed. If it takes 100 days to get them out, then you can do the math.”

Scales, a lawyer, said he also became concerned after hearing claims made by some in the community that were legally inaccurate when it came to public records. He wants to make sure that the entire council is on the same page.

“The law is so expansive, it is easy for council members that haven’t had to deal with this routinely to think that (for example) sending an email to a member of the community for scheduling a date for a public hearing isn’t a public record when it is,” Scales said.

“It takes a while to get used to that. That’s why we have a requirement in the governance manual to only use our city email,” he said.

It isn’t the first time the city council has faced conflicts with personal and city email accounts. Scales also broached the topic in December 2011 when it was discovered that then-Councilman Bill Knobloch had frequently used his personal email account for city business.

To remedy the matter, Scales put forth a massive public records request asking for an immense list of Knobloch’s emails that Scales knew about. The request took nearly three months to complete.

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