E-mails to City of Bozeman about privacy fiasco not yet available to the public

This morn­ing, I went down to the City Clerk’s office to get copies of the e-mails that the City of Bozeman has received about its now-repealed pol­icy of using appli­cants’ social net­work­ing pass­words in pre-employment back­ground checks.

I knew the doc­u­ments were pub­lic record; City Commissioner Sean Becker said so dur­ing the City Commission meet­ing on June 29. So I went to the clerk’s office and asked for them. The assis­tant clerk was the only one in, and she quickly found two fold­ers full of pub­lic com­ments for the City Commission — not all dealt with the pri­vacy con­tro­versy, but most did.

She wasn’t sure whether she could make copies of the doc­u­ments, so she tried to call about a half dozen peo­ple and even went upstairs to try to find some­one who knew. She didn’t, so I agreed to wait until she had her answer to get copies of the doc­u­ments and asked whether I could just read through them at the office in the mean­time. She said that would be fine.

For about 15 min­utes, I sat in the City Clerk’s office going through the two file fold­ers — in the 32 e-mails I counted, 26 dealt with the con­tro­ver­sial pol­icy. Many of them were civil but dis­be­liev­ing. There were no really rude e-mails in those files.

The clerk said there was another file that con­tained all the e-mails that were sub­mit­ted anony­mously and that there was still some lin­ger­ing legal ques­tion about releas­ing those. She said those were the really nasty e-mails.

About 15 min­utes after I started, just when I had fin­ished scan­ning through the first folder of e-mails, a woman from the City Attorney’s office came in and said that the attor­ney had called in via cell phone and said that he didn’t want any of those e-mails made avail­able to the pub­lic yet — mean­ing that I could not even read them in the office, let alone get copies of them.

The rea­son given to me was that some of the e-mails could con­tain infor­ma­tion that would vio­late the pri­vacy rights of some city employ­ees. OK, but then why did Commissioner Becker say they were “pub­lic record” and why were they avail­able to view, for at least 15 min­utes, in the City Clerk’s office?

The attor­ney appar­ently told the woman that he wanted a writ­ten request for the doc­u­ments filed before they could be released. I left to com­pose that request.

I recounted my expe­ri­ence to my con­tacts at the local news­pa­per, who were of the opin­ion that a doc­u­ment made pub­lic should remain pub­lic. I agree, but I’ll play by the city attorney’s rules here. I sub­mit­ted my writ­ten request this after­noon. Since it’s a hol­i­day week­end, I don’t expect to hear back until next week, at least.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not alleg­ing any wrong­do­ing here at all. If any­thing, the city is doing the right thing by pro­ceed­ing slowly on the mat­ter to make sure it has all its t’s crossed and i’s dot­ted, despite the incon­ve­nience it causes me.

I do hope, though, that this “con­cern that there’s some­thing in the doc­u­ments that could vio­late pri­vacy” (or words to that effect) doesn’t become a stan­dard prac­tice for keep­ing doc­u­ments away from the press and public.

I’ll write more when I know more or when I receive a response from the city.