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Brunswick County government made a good step toward operating as an open and transparent government when it decided to install a computer terminal at the county complex where government e-mails can be accessed by the public.
The public e-mail computer terminal is in the lobby of Building I at the county government complex in Bolivia. Business hours are 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
By using the computer, citizens can have access to correspondence that takes place within the county’s e-mail system.
In a community that has many senior citizens and its share of economically disadvantage families, this terminal may provide access that otherwise may not have been available to many citizens.
While computer access is certainly a step in the right direction, the plan may still need further examination.
Any e-mails marked “private” won’t be available for viewing.
On the surface, that plan makes sense. E-mails covered by exemption to state open records statutes should be withheld from public viewing. That exemption would include confidential personnel information, trade secrets, any evidence of income or income generation of an individual collected by the tax office or any patient information protected by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
However, what’s to stop any employee from marking a message private, so it’s filtered out, when it doesn’t meet state exemptions?
The key, we think, is education, and we hope county officials are taking proactive steps to make sure all employees with access to government e-mail know exactly what they can and can’t do.
Employees should also be reminded that although they’re permitted to send personal e-mails via the county’s computer usage policy, it’s probably not a good idea as the e-mails could be viewed by other citizens at any time.
This new computer access plan could be a model for other governments, especially individual municipalities. It’s a good way to make sure citizens have access to the issues and decisions that affect them. We hope to see other agencies soon follow suit.