New Email Policy at Pensacola City Hall
Less than a month after implementing it, City Administrator Eric Olson is tossing out an email policy for city employees. The action came after Olson discussed the matter with the City Attorney and State Attorney’s Office.
Essentially, emails to and from City Hall must now be handled in the same manner as any other public record, regardless of source. That comes after Olson’s call to the work supervisor of Melanie Nichols, an NAS Pensacola employee who’s also President of the North Hill Preservation Association, regarding emails sent from a Navy account to City Hall.
“We did receive an email complaint from Rick Outzen of the Independent News,” said Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille. “Indicating he was concerned by an email that Eric Olson of the City of Pensacola sent out to city employees.”
Olson ordered city staff to ask the senders using federal email accounts to switch to a personal account. After reviewing the policy, Marcille recommended that Olson change it, to avoid possible violations of Florida’s public records law.
“Under the law, a governmental entity cannot make any sort of conditions or requirements, as to the manner in which a public records request is made,” Marcille said. “I explained that situation to Mr. Olson. He indicated that he understood those concerns, and would take the appropriate action to insure that did not become a problem.”
Olson declined to be interviewed on tape by WUWF. A subsequent “no confidence” vote against him last month failed when the City Council deadlocked at 4-4. Olson apologized at that meeting.
“I hate to be blunt, but quite frankly, it’s none of the city manager’s [sic] business,” said Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation. She says everyone has a constitutional right in Florida to make public records requests by email, phone, and other myriad forms.
Petersen said Olson’s contacting of Nichols’ employer over her emails was “completely out of line,” and could be considered to have a “chilling effect” on Melanie Nichols’ constitutional right of access.
“Public record is defined as ‘Anything related to public business, that’s intended to perpetuate, communicate, or formalize knowledge,’” said Petersen. Even if the city manager was using his personal Gmail account to respond to a city resident about a complaint. That’s still a public record in Florida.”
One sticking point in keeping up with modern communications. Greg Marcille in the State Attorney’s Office says the law does not always address such changes in a timely manner.
“I do believe that agencies are reacting to change and adapting their policies to meet that,” Marcille said. “But it’s not unusual to see Florida laws, or any other type law or agency code requirements lagging behind the changes in technology.”
And this isn’t the First Amendment Foundation’s first rodeo when it comes to the City of Pensacola. In 2013, Barbara Petersen convened a “Sunshine Seminar” for city workers. And she says the calls continue to flow into her office from both Pensacola and Escambia County.
“I think you’ve got a very active and engaged citizenry and media in that area,” said Petersen. “Every time there’s an issue, I get calls. Every time there’s a concern I get calls. And I do get them regularly.”
Another result of Olson vs. Nichols, is that the city’s Sunshine Center and Public Records Coordinator – which handle all public records requests -- are now under the umbrella of City Attorney Lysia Bowling’s office.
DD, WUWF News.