Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 3:58 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Today's technology offers easy fix for city's email policy


How and when should city business done through email by Homer City Council members and Mayor James Hornaday be retained? On April 16 in a work session, city attorney Holly Wells offered an easy solution:

• Use city of Homer email addresses for all council and mayor correspondence, and

• Retain and preserve that electronic correspondence on city servers, or data banks.

That's uncomplicated, common-sense advice.

"You don't need to do anything, because Nick will keep you up with everything," Wells told the council and mayor, referring to Nick Poolos, the city's tech manager.

City Manager Walt Wrede made another suggestion: Buy and loan to council members and the mayor laptop or tablet computers where they write, send and receive email.

Both Wells' and Wrede's ideas are excellent and should be implemented as quickly as possible. Homer Electric Association already provides its board members with iPads.

The issue of email by government officials became a challenge as Alaska's Public Records act entered the 21st century. With email making correspondence simple, millions of public actions that before might have been handled with a phone call potentially became preserved forever.

"The Legislature specifically and intentionally created a law that says you don't have to save every scrap of paper, but you do have to retain what has institutional value," Wells said.

What's institutional value, though? There's the rub.

Thanks to the popularity of former Gov. Sarah Palin when she became the Republican Party nominee for vice president in 2008, Alaska is ahead in case law. Palin was sued for the release of her emails. The plaintiff wanted almost everything released. An Alaska Superior Court said, No, that's not what the Alaska Legislature intended. Not every little note on Palin's Blackberry had institutional value. Absent more clear direction from higher courts, though, the lines remain blurry.

That's why the requirement that council members and the mayor use city email servers is smart. Although we expect the mayor and council to exercise good judgment, by using city email addresses they can err on the side of caution. The burden of preserving emails rests on the city administration. With data storage becoming cheaper and cheaper, that's not a huge challenge.

Mayor James Hornaday, who doesn't trust modern technology, said he'd veto an appropriation of funds for council laptops. That's short sighted. Penny wise but pound foolish, we would argue.

Sure, computers break down and fail, but a laptop or tablet computer can handle email, web browsing and more. As council member Bryan Zak noted, a laptop or tablet also could be used to view the phonebook-size council agendas digitally, saving paper and city funds.

Poolos said it would be technologically simpler if council members checked email on the same brand of device and operating system. The portable computer would belong to the seat and not the member. If a court case required a computer be seized and examined, a council member wouldn't lose use of his or her own computer. Council member Barbara Howard, who flashed an iPad at the work session, said she liked that idea.

"It's the right thing to do," Howard said. "We are in the century we are in."

Howard is right. Get the mayor and council city email addresses that are easy to figure out. Buy them a cheap, reliable device like the iPad ($399 for the second generation one).

And join the 21st century.