Boards and Commissions

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Austin Board and Commissions Get E-mail Policy

Austin Board and Commissions Get E-mail Policy

Fifteen months after City Council ordered changes, board
and commission members to be assigned city e-mail accounts

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, August 23, 2012 7:50pm

It took the City of Austin 15 months to establish a formal procedure but, finally, the 368 members of the city’s 51 boards and commissions are going to be brought into the city’s e-mail system.

The action is needed to bring the city into compliance with the Texas Public Information Act by enabling the city to collect, assemble, and maintain e-mails about city business that board and commission members send or receive. This will allow the city to search the city’s server to find information responsive to public information requests and produce those records for inspection.

For many years the city’s website for each board and commission listed each member’s personal e-mail address.

Joseph Larsen“This is easily the most well thought-out policy addressing this issue, both from the private device/account and city server side, that I have seen,” said Joseph Larsen, special counsel to Sedgwick LLP. Larsen is an expert on open government laws and a volunteer attorney for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “... overall I think this could serve as a template for policies for other City officers and employees and for other governmental bodies.”

This is the third and final phase of improving the city’s handling of electronic communications in response to our lawsuit, The Austin Bulldog v. Mayor Lee Leffingwell et al filed March 1, 2012, and the county attorney’s ongoing investigation of the City Council’s violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act that The Austin Bulldog exposed January 25, 2011.

Corralling board and commission e-mails

Posted Thursday, October 27, 2011 7:03pm
City of Austin Moving, Slowly, Toward Greater
Transparency in Electronic Communication

New System for Board and Commission
Members Targeted for First Quarter 2012

By Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Maybe you're a neighborhood resident trying to figure out what developers are telling board and commission members outside open meetings via e-mail. Or perhaps you’re a developer trying to figure out what the neighborhood representatives are saying about your project in e-mails to board and commission members. If so, you would like to think you can get those e-mails by filing an open records request.

Maybe you can, maybe not.

While many of the boards and commissions are only advisory and perform due diligence to assist the City Council’s decision-making, 15 of them are “sovereign” bodies that can take an official government action, such as issuing a permit or granting a variance, even if that action can be appealed

Some sovereign boards have the power to issue subpoenas and compel testimony. Decisions made by many of the sovereign bodies can be appealed to the City Council, while decisions made by some sovereign boards and commissions may only be appealed through the courts, according to City Code Chapter 2-1.

At present, the city’s web pages for boards and commissions lists each appointed member’s personal e-mail address. The city is therefore actively encouraging communication about city business through a system that may not be fully responsive to open records requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act.

Shirley GentryThe City Council directed the City Clerk to make recommendations about how to correct this situation as part of an April 7 resolution. City Clerk Shirley Gentry responded in a May 16 e-mail with three options and recommended one of them. The council has not acted on that information.

Gentry and the city’s Communications and Technology Management staff have continued to refine the earlier recommendations. On Tuesday, Gentry and Teri Pennington, deputy chief information officer for Communications and Technology Management, briefed the city council’s Audit and Finance Committee members in a meeting at City Hall.

Committee Chair Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo were present and participated in the briefing.

If approved by the City Council when final recommendations are made, when implemented in the first quarter of 2012 as projected, the proposed system would assign city e-mail addresses to the 350 citizen volunteers who are appointed by the city council to serve on the city’s 55 boards and commissions.

The new system is designed to ensure that the city could find and provide e-mail messages that are responsive to open records requests, as required by the Texas Public Information Act.

The new system also envisions using technological methods that would prevent board and commission members from inadvertently violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by engaging in a discussion of city business among a quorum of members.

The planned system would enable anyone wishing to communicate with board or commission members about city business to send e-mails via the Internet to all members of a board or commission or to individual members. It would work the same way that e-mails may be sent to the entire City Council or to individual members via the city’s website at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/site/city_hall_portal.htm.

Board and commission members would be licensed to use Microsoft’s Outlook Web App to access these messages via the Internet by logging in and using their personal communications devices, Pennington said. To see an illustration showing how this system would function, click here.

Gentry said the system would allow replies to be sent only to the sender and would prevent replying in such a manner that other board or commission members are brought into the dialogue. 

All e-mails sent or received using this system would be captured on city servers. “If there was a public information request, we could just pull the e-mails out like we normally do," Pennington told the committee.

Required to stop using personal accounts