Local government emails at your fingertips, no need for public records request

This is HUGE: The City of Gainesville, Fla., has moved to make public officials’ emails available online — without the need to submit a FOIA request.

Anyone with a computer and Internet connection can scroll through any of the city commissioners’, or even the mayor’s, emails in a user-friendly database. You can search by date, specific mailboxes, or by specific words in either the subject line or body of the email. You can even export them into a ZIP file for further use.

Currently, there are over 10,000 emails searchable that date back to March. Of course, there will be some emails that won’t be available to the public that contain confidential information in accordance with state law. According to an interview between Clerk Commissioner Kurt Lannon and The Alligator, University of Florida’s student newspaper, that only applies to few emails. However, you can still view those emails by submitting a FOIA request.

I asked Lannon via email if the online email access of public officials was likely to help reduce the labor cost in fulfilling open records requests. “Yes, very much so,” he replied. The emails are automatically published to the website, except for the confidential emails that commissioners place in a “do not publish list.”

If I were a reporter in Gainesville, I would be checking the database every day for accidentally published “do not publish list” emails.


On a semi-related note, I suggested this idea of an email database to a reporter interviewing me about my open records lawsuit against the University System of Georgia. I filed suit against them last June for stonewalling and delay tactics in providing me emails. In court, their witnesses testified, and their lawyers argued, that this was the “largest request” for open records the university system had ever dealt with.

Their process for complying with an open records request for emails?

Printing out every email, reviewing and redacting them on paper, then scanning them back into a PDF file as JPEG image files (which effectively disabled the ability to perform keyword searches). This amounted to printing out a little over 12,000 pages to redact a handful of emails.

The reporter who interviewed me asked if I had a suggestion for how this process could be more efficient. Well, it seems Gainesville has come up with the solution. And they’re poised to save labor costs in doing so.

Government agencies subject to freedom of information laws need to catch up with the times. The technology is here and can make their lives easier. I would almost go a step further and say this technology needs to be legislated in other states’ open records laws.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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