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Why reporting politicians’ public emails just got a lot harder in Durham

An email portal run by the city of Durham that let the media read public emails sent to and from City Council members, the mayor and city manager has been shut down.

The portal gave reporters almost instant access to the electronic discussions happening in City Hall. That access ended Sunday.

Mayor Steve Schewel, who once owned the Independent Weekly, said he liked the City Council giving the press this unique tool.

“We have had this extraordinary policy of having the portal where all of our emails sent to our city address were available to the press,” he said. “And it was great because the press could easily access the emails.”

The city’s attorneys recently advised the City Council to shut down the service, Schewel said.

City Attorney Kim Rehberg said the city began talking about a policy change under her predecessor, Patrick Baker.

“There were numerous conversations between the mayor, the City Attorney’s Office, the City Manager’s Office, and the Public Affairs Office,” Rehberg said. “The city has seen a tremendous increase in public records requests from private individuals over the past year or so. Those requests have been accompanied by private individuals asking for the same access that media outlets and professionals have to the City Council portal.”

Frayda Bluestein of the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill said Durham’s email portal was unusual for government bodies.

“It’s not something they were required to do,” she said. “Once you open it up, it’s hard to control.”

Rehberg said several people had requested the same access to the portal that the media had.

“With no reasonable process to vet all council communications before they are uploaded to the portal, the decision was made to close the portal and adopt a single public records request policy that applies irrespective of whether a requester is a member of the media or a private individual,” she said.

The portal operated for almost a decade, Schewel said. He’s been on the City Council since 2011 and was elected mayor in 2017.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said she had not received any complaints about portal misuse and was sorry about the policy change.

“I regret the inconvenience that closing the portal will cause for responsible local media outlets and journalists who were using it appropriately,” she said. “We continue to be committed to being a responsive and transparent local government and will respond quickly and fully to any information requests from media or other residents.”

What is required

Most public officials’ emails are public records under North Carolina law.

Government bodies are required to make public records available “at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person, and shall, as promptly as possible, furnish copies thereof upon payment of any fees as may be prescribed by law,” according to state law.

But it often takes time for requests to be fulfilled as public records like email are checked for information prohibited from disclosure.

Durham’s portal had no such safeguards.

“The members of the City Council cannot control what people unilaterally send to them,” Rehberg said. “There are significant numbers of emails and other documents that are sent to them that contain privacy-protected information, or information that falls into other categories that are exempted from public information requests.”

Schewel said he has received sensitive, private information many times. Sometimes they were related to city personnel matters. At others, they contained extremely personal information, he said. These types of information are exempt from disclosure, he said.

Schewel said the decision came down to fairness and preventing inadvertent disclosure of protected information.

“Nowadays, someone comes and says, you know, ‘I’ve got a blog.’” he said. “And you know, what are you going to say? We just realized that we really couldn’t make any distinction.”

Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.
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