Confused computers

From the Twin Falls Times-News

Counties vary in accepting e-mailed public records requests
By Nate Poppino
Times-News writer

In 2006, Idaho legislators caught the state’s public records law up with the Internet, inserting that “a request for a public record – may be conducted by electronic mail.”

But the optional language, while giving public agencies the control they need over requests, has resulted in a patchwork of records policies and at least one county – Jerome – where some departments no longer accept them in digital form.

The changes, said former prosecutor and current deputy prosecutor Mike Seib, were made to solve problems with receiving and responding to some requests. E-mails sent to the part-time county commissioners, for example, were only read two days out of the week. And another official didn’t realize that a request sent to several officials was meant for him.

The new policies for the county clerk and planning and zoning department were tested in court last fall as part of a larger case brought by resident Lee Halper.

Although Halper argued state law required the county to accept his e-mailed request, 5th District Judge G. Richard Bevan stopped short of ruling on the statute as a whole, approving the request only for that specific case.

Deputy Attorney General Bill Von Tagen said Wednesday that public agencies aren’t required to accept requests through their computers. But he always encourages them to develop policies for e-mail requests, helping ensure they get to where they need to be and don’t languish in in-boxes.

“It’s dangerous not to,” he said.

Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties, said there doesn’t seem to be one consistent way counties handle e-mails. But a sampling of several county clerk offices in the Magic Valley revealed that Jerome County’s neighbors more or less accept such requests – most adding that they still prefer paper submissions and one saying he asks e-mailers to fill out a physical form.

State agencies contacted Wednesday also had systems in place. The departments of Agriculture, Correction, Education and Health and Welfare all accept e-mail requests in their varying policies, and many have places on their Web sites to submit such requests.

County attorneys consulted about the issue said the challenge is to preserve open access to information while solving some of the issues e-mails present. Cassia County Prosecutor Al Barrus said he would lean towards replying with a form and said it can be harder to verify an e-mail. Lincoln County Prosecutor E. Scott Paul said he’d err on the side of accepting e-mail requests unless they were sent en masse and maliciously.

“I think the default is, you have to consider it a legit request,” Paul said.

Seib said Jerome County would love to accommodate its residents via e-mail in this day and age. But he said officials feel doing that would require restricting some people from e-mailing.

“You’ve got to treat everyone the same,” he said.

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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