Online Politicians Find Privacy Elusive

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The elected officials in this desert city used to push the 'send' button on their e-mail systems often.

With the click of a computer mouse, Phoenix City Council members would have their say and find out where colleagues stood on an issue. It was simple, hassle-free.

But not lately. E-mail has come under scrutiny recently by public watchdogs who question whether computer messaging among council members marks a return to the days when decisions were made behind closed doors.

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Across the country, elected officials and watchdog groups are grappling with the issue of defining what's private and what's public when public officials communicate in cyberspace. At issue, say observers, are questions of political responsibility and public access to the inner workings of government decision-making.

"It's definitely on the radar screen," says Kyle Niederpruem, Freedom of Information chairwoman for the National Society of Professional Journalists. "We hear about these things all the time.... People are talking about it."

In Wisconsin, citizens are embroiled in a battle over gaining access to the e-mail of public officials exchanging messages through a commercial internet provider. In Massachusetts, a bulletin board used by public officials caused a flap because only members could gain access.

Like Arizona, most states have laws that require city councils and other public bodies to hold discussions and make decisions in open meetings. These so-called "sunshine laws" generally state that anytime a quorum of a panel is gathered, it's a meeting.

Critics say e-mail blurs the lines. Does a message sent to all city council members constitute a meeting? What about an exchange between two members of a three-person subcommittee?

OTHERS say these electronic messages are simply the electronic equivalent of one-on-one conversations that commonly occur between council members looking to line up votes, whether it be on the telephone, in offices at city hall, or elsewhere.

"Things that used to get done over the telephone or over a cup of coffee in a diner are now getting done over e-mail," says Jeff Fletcher, public affairs director for the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Fletcher says public officials should automatically assume that their computer correspondence will be made public whether that's the case or not. "[They] might as well think of it as a formal memo, because that's how it's going to be treated," he says. "I'd choose my words judiciously if I were them."

If electronic exchanges among council members are a matter of public record, there is also the issue of how to make them available to interested citizens, as few people save e-mail like they do paper memos.

In Phoenix, city officials already have authorized spending $5,000 for software to make collecting council e-mails easier.

One Phoenix councilman says the new software should combat any wrong impressions about the way their elected representatives do business. "This is a show of openness I think was needed," says Dave Siebert, who is completing his first year on the nine-member council.

Phoenix officials report that along with the software, another by-product of the controversy has been a dramatic reduction in council members' e-mail correspondence.

But whether it comes down to making public officials' e-mail more public or eliminating it altogether, one advocate says the bottom line remains the same even in this computerized world.

"We're dealing with ethics," says Nancy Monson, executive director of the Dallas-based of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. "It doesn't matter if you're pushing a button or picking up a phone. It's all the same."

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