Public officials’ emails could be missing

Looking to file a Freedom of Information Act request for emails from elected Darien officials on a certain topic? Chances are you might not get everything you’re looking for, according to a Darien Times investigation.

Requests filed by several parents and this newspaper to examine emails of this nature have routinely been inadequate, according to comparisons of requests made under the FOIA and under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. Some emails were included in FERPA requests made by parents who did not receive the same emails in their FOIA requests, sources told The Darien Times. FERPA is a way for parents to ask for all educational records related to their children, including emails, if applicable.

Elected town and school officials are not required to use email addresses issued by the town or school district. Instead, they are allowed to use their personal emails to conduct business. While there is no law forbidding this practice, it prevents these emails from being stored in a central location where they can be easily accessed by anyone, such as state officials, selectmen, or anyone looking for information via the FOIA. This would not be the case if officials used the town email service, DarienCT.gov, which archives emails, making them easily searchable.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said she has directed her fellow board members to set up emails through the DarienCT.gov address, “and to use this email exclusively for business purposes.” However, she also noted that it’s impossible to police the use of this email address.

“In my opinion, we could ‘require’ the set up of a town email but not the use there of,” she stated in an email.

This year, amid public outcry for more transparency, the Board of Education moved all board members to the DarienPS.org email address, which is managed by the same town infrastructure as DarienCt.gov. However, there is no rule stating the members cannot still use their personal email addresses to conduct school business.

Requests for public records under the Freedom of Information Act were responsible for bringing to light much of the special education problems in town over the last year. Many of these requests, made by parents and this newspaper, involved the review of emails between and among elected officials and school employees.

The Board of Finance discussed moving all of its members to the town’s email system, but not all were in agreement. Member David Lopiano said the town’s system doesn’t allow members to cache emails so the user can view the emails while not connected to the Internet. He also said it’s not quite as user friendly as other email programs.

Liz Mao, Board of Finance chairman, changed her Board of Finance email address this year to a Gmail account.

“It’s so easy, it took me five minutes,” she said.

Board member Jon Zagrodzky noted the reason for changing over to town addresses was to improve the town’s response to FOIA requests.

“The whole point of doing these email addresses, was so that if we get a FOIA request in the future, the town can actually take care of that because they’ve got all of our emails on the town servers,” Zagrodzky said at the board’s Nov. 19 meeting. “That’s the reason for doing this. So the question is, is that convenient, to have that ability to do that?”

Lopiano said he could look into ways to make the town’s system more user-friendly, but noted that Gmail “is pretty easy.”

“Or you could do like you did before, and just search other emails,” Mao said, referring to fulfilling FOIA requests. “But I like to delete.”

The ability to delete emails at will contradicts state guidelines.

“Most electronic messages have limited value and can be deleted immediately upon receipt,” states Eunice DiBella, the state’s public records administrator, in a 2009 memo to elected officials and employees.

“However, electronic messages that document agency functions and provide evidence of agency business must be retained according to the equivalent records series,” DiBella continued. “Electronic messages are similar to traditional postal mail — the message must be evaluated for action and subsequent retention.”

In an email to The Times, Mao said she only deletes personal emails.

“Nothing that would be subject to a FOIA request,” she said, adding that all her board members have been privy to the records retention policy and they all follow state laws.

Stevenson said she signs all record disposal requests for paper files not related to the Board of Education, and noted that emails through DarienCT.gov are archived. It’s unclear, however, how long they are archived and what the disposal process looks like.

Finance board member Jamie McLaughlin noted one of the “curious” outcomes of the past year is the “moral hazard that exists because of the FOI filings.”

“Most of us will not encrypt anything in the future,” he said, referring to emails discussing town business made in secret. “That’s just one of the outcomes here.”

McLaughlin came under fire this year when it became known, through FOIA requests, that he met with special education Director Deirdre Osypuk “in the dead of summer” in 2012. McLaughlin said he was there to discuss Osypuk’s plan for special education. She had just been hired, and others said McLaughlin was there to pressure Osypuk to keep costs under control.

Board of Finance members had been vocal about the need to rein in special education spending, which had gone over budget for three straight years. In Osypuk’s employment application to Darien, she noted the importance to cut services to children with disabilities to maintain a zero percent budget increase. Osypuk has been on paid leave since June, and she has been paid more than $83,000 to not work.

The FOIA request that revealed McLaughlin’s controversial visit with Osypuk had asked for all Board of Finance emails involving special education. To respond to this request, the members collected their own emails themselves by searching their own personal email addresses.

This, some have said, could be considered a conflict of interest, as damaging emails could easily be deleted without others ever knowing. If emails were done through town addresses, all emails would be archived, and the deletion would require approval. However, as Stevenson noted, it would be difficult to ensure that business was not being done over personal email. Additionally, the town’s email retention policy is also unclear. Stevenson said she would have to ask the IT department for this information.

McLaughlin added that Gmail “is pretty straightforward.” Currently, only board members McLaughlin, Bruce Orr and Gwen Mogenson list the town’s email account as their primary contact on the Board of Finance website.

Mao emphasized that if the members used Gmail, they could use the system’s other features, such as Google Docs, which enables users to save documents in a location accessible to all members. Most members discussed the benefits of gmail over the town system, leaving some in town to wonder if the board is more interested in ease of use over full transparency.

Mao said she doesn’t use the town system because she “cannot get them on mobile devices and we have to log in via the web.”

“This is not useful as we are always on the go in cars and out and about,” she said. At the meeting, Lopiano said the town’s email system can be used on mobile phones, as long as it has Internet access.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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