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went down to the City Clerk’s office to get copies of the e-mails that the City of Bozeman has received about its now-repealed policy of using applicants’ social networking passwords in pre-employment background checks.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