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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Lebanon Council deals with FOIA concerns on personal devices

By Angela Simmons, O'Fallon Weekly | May 16, 2018

Residents of Lebanon may soon need to stick to official channels to speak to their city officials. Alderman Rick Gale mentioned to the council that any communication with residents via the council members’ personal cell phones is subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“When we’re getting into city business, Freedom of Information requests, etc, our own personal emails, this is really discoverable information. How should we be handling this as a group? I’m not advocating to get our own cell phones from the city- I’m not saying that at all. We have a city-wide email,” Gale said.

He then explained an idea that he and City Clerk Luanne Holper developed to restrict communication to the official city email system to have records of conversations through official channels.

City attorney John Long was consulted and asked if the official email channels should be the advertised way to get a hold of council members. 

“That’s the absolute very best thing," Long said. "You’ve got two problems here. One is that Mr. Gale is correct that it is foiable. The other thing is that there’s a thing called the Local Governmental Records Act that says you can’t just delete public records on your personal phone. You can delete all the other things from your phone, but you can’t delete things like that that concern public business.”

Aldermen discussed how to best get the word out that phone calls present a legal problem as far as being on personal cell phones and having no written records. 

Long continued to explain that the Illinois Attorney General has ruled in some instances that people may have to submit their personal cell phones to be sure that all information under the FOIA has been properly released to the requester, which continues to pose privacy issues for personal content. 

“That would really be bothersome," Long said. "Who wants to have someone looking over what you’ve said amongst your family members? That would really be intolerable. The public needs to understand that because these two problems, the Freedom of Information Act and the Local Governmental Records Act, really it behooves our aldermen not to speak to people at all on their cell phones, and certainly not to text back and forth with them.

“The best thing across the board would be to say ‘Because of our established public policy, I can’t discuss any public business on my cell phone.’”

After more discussion about phone calls to council members’  homes, Alderman Al Gerdes said, “You’ve got to remember the other side of that. We are not dictators. We are representatives of those very people that are trying to contact you, so to say that we can’t talk to them on the phone, or we can’t stop and talk talk to them on the street is a problem.”

Gerdes continued to discuss upcoming issues with Google email servers that will delete emails. 

“According to the rules that Springfield has put on us, we should be able to call up any of those emails," Gerdes said. "When they’re calling you on the phone, it’s the equivalent, because when they hang up the phone, everything that was said is only in your mind, and there’s no record of it."

Gerdes discussed a “faux pas” that emptied the city’s emails and that it was “something we’re working on on the technical side."

"You didn’t lose anything from your personals, but the copy account that’s supposed to be building as you get things in on your official disappeared,” Gerdes said, and insisted that aldermen needed to talk to their constituents.

Resident Jessica Zurliene suggested using social media to spread the word for how the aldermen wanted to be reached.

Gale and Wilken said they would figure out how to spread the word officially, and Gerdes will change the website to reflect the request. The council voted to spend $549 on a cloud back up service.

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City of Lebanon Illinois Attorney General