Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor recently announced during a Selectboard meeting that she didn’t read emails sent to her official email account.
I decided to send a few questions to Town Manager Peter Elwell about this April 26. When did O’Connor stop reading her emails? How many emails piled up as unread? How many of them were from citizens and how many were spam? Which other Selectboard members don’t read their official email accounts? And how should citizens contact board members so that they know their comments will be read?
Elwell replied, but didn’t have any answers to these questions. He suggested I contact O’Connor directly, and copied her in on the reply. He also said that his method of contacting board members is to send one message to their official email address and a copy to their private email address.
I replied all, repeating the request for details from O’Connor.
There was no reply.
On May 9, I again repeated the request.
On May 10 I decided to test all the other board members’ official accounts by sending each a message from the Town website. (Tim Wessel’s, by the way, was incorrectly formatted on the town web site as a link rather than an email address, and lead to a 404 error for anyone clicking on it.)
Wessel was the first to reply, in a matter of moments. He said he forwards his official email to his Gmail account. “This takes care of 99.7 % all the spam we receive.”
Brandie Starr was second to reply, within a few hours. “My account forwards to my Gmail, so that I get it on my phone!”
David Schoales was third, before 24 hours had passed. “What is timely in your view?” he asked. (I replied that I thought 24-48 hours seemed “timely” and a week seemed “reasonable.”)
Kate O’Connor replied fourth, to the email I sent May 9. She didn’t answer the original questions, but said that “Everything is under control. I’ve been unsubscribing from the email I didn’t ask for and it’s lessening the load!”
Shanta Lee Gander hadn’t responded as of this writing, May 15.
Secretary of State Jim Condos has written that “All public records regardless of format (i.e. tape recordings, videotapes, paper documents, microfilm and microfiche, emails or any other means of capturing and reproducing the work of government) are open and accessible, unless there is a specific statute exempting them from public disclosure.”
And the Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that the private email and text message accounts of public officials are subject to the state’s public records law.
The official town email addresses were implemented in part to make it easier to comply with public records laws. It’s easier to keep track of all emails to and from public officials when they go through a central, town server.
Keeping copies of everything for the public to access is much harder when board members use other accounts. If a public official uses a private email account for government business, how, when and where does this get preserved?