There’s something interesting happening over at Winchester Hall. Namely, a tiny glimpse has been provided behind the curtain that is Council President Bud Otis and the manner in which he responds to constituent e-mails.
On July 15th, I was having a conversation with Mary Posey, a Frederick County resident and local government historian. At least, most of my questions posed to Posey involve what happened in County government before I lived here. We were discussing some recent cases which involved free speech and the internet. You see, a few months back the ACLU made big stink about Governor Hogan blocking people from commenting on his Facebook page. Today they filed a lawsuit against Hogan for blocking constituents on Facebook. Their argument is that an elected representative which utilizes social media in an official capacity has created a 1st amendment protected free speech zone, for constituents to praise the good or criticize the bad. In fact, just a few days ago, a Federal Judge agreed with this approach.
Ms. Posey sent an e-mail to Council President Bud Otis, who had recently blocked her on social media, citing this legal principle. For clarification, this only applies to individuals that are actually constituents. Random anonymous internet trolls need not apply.
This block apparently happened after Ms. Posey exercised her First Amendment rights during Public Comment, with a potted plant and yellow tie in tow.
The e-mail above was sent on Friday, July 14th. Not what I could call normal working hours. Just 23 minutes later, Ms. Posey received the following from Adam Umak, Executive Director of Frederick County Fact Check:
Before you all get it twisted, this is not about Mr. Umak. We’re still in the “context” phase.
I would call it far from orthodox for any – ANY – elected representative to handle any communication from their constituents by asking a private citizen to respond to the e-mail. Specifically, the County Council has multiple staff members, from legislative aides to County Attorneys, which should have been involved with crafting a response to this inquiry.
UPDATE: I don’t believe in arbitrarily deleting anything that I ever type, too many echoes of Newspeak for me. So I want to provide an update instead. In speaking with Adam Umak, he clarified that Council President Otis e-mailed him to figure out how to unblock someone on Facebook. Considering that some of you techno-noobs out there have asked me similar questions before, I find this believable. As far as whether or not the correspondence between Ms. Posey and Mr. Umak was malicious or innocent, that’s a question for the reader to decide.
Ms. Posey alerted me to this interaction, which prompted me to file a Public Information Act request:
As the County’s official and legally binding response to my formal request for information, they deny that any such records exists. Sure, that’s plausible. Maybe Bud Otis called Adam Umak at 10pm on a Friday? Given my past experiences with this totalitarian County Executive and Staff, I pushed a little bit further.
Apparently proposing that the County Government had been electronically compromised was the only explanation to the lack of e-mails was the only way to get the information I requested:
Now that we have the full context of the story, we have a small glimpse into the way in which the County currently operates.
Council President Otis responded to a few questions that I sent him. You can see his response below. For ease of reading, I surrounded his response in red:
My Editorialized Thoughts:
First off, the County refused to turn over records in accordance with my PIA request, committing perjury by stating that no such record exists. Council President Bus Otis also lied in his response, claiming that he does not use personal e-mail to conduct County business. It is clear that the staff and elected representatives at Winchester Hall are wantonly disregarding truth and honesty in conducting their duties.
Second, Linda Thall implicitly admitted that when the County searches for electronic records, they do not conduct a “real” search. It appears that they ask the person who holds the records in their Outlook client to go look for e-mails. Of course, this creates a conflict of interest. If information held in these e-mails is incriminating, illegal, or embarrassing, a simple press of the “delete” key removes them from the “record”. How can we trust ANY result of a Public Information Act request sent to Jan Gardner’s County Government when bypassing public disclosure is so simple?
Quick IT lesson for you all. Deleting an e-mail from your e-mail application does NOT delete the e-mail. The original is retained on the e-mail server that you connect to. There are regulatory compliance standards here, entities like Federal Contractors and banks have to retain these communications for a certain number of days. Under the Patriot Act, commercial e-mail providers like Google and Yahoo have to retain your e-mails for 5 years after deletion. If the Government can impose such standards, why doesn’t the Government follow their own standard? Why does the County not send these requests to their IT staff to ensure that the results of a Public Information Act request are real, including “deleted” e-mails?
Third, did you catch the double standard of Council President Bud Otis? In response to Question 2, he states that he “may” have accidentally deleted the e-mail received from Ms. Posey. In Question 3, he states that all e-mail communication received by members of Council are a matter of public record. Well, the e-mails are public record UNLESS you delete them.
Fourth, we have explicit evidence that Bud Otis utilizes his personal e-mail to conduct County business, despite his response to my inquiry. Do I even have to make the comparison to Hillary Clinton or can you make the link yourself? There is absolutely no technical reason why any individual with a cell phone, computer, tablet, or laptop cannot utilize two different e-mail address at the same time. In fact, as I type this post, both my GMail and Yahoo (yes I am old) e-mail accounts are open and running. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for an elected representative to use private e-mail to conduct their official duties.
Fifth, Council President Bud Otis seems to be using private citizens to assist with his constituent services. I do not buy this canard of “someone was having a similar issue.” Let me be fair here, I can think of some instances where this would be relevant. Say Politician Joe-Bob was contacted by Constituent Sally-Sue about a road construction problem. If Politician Joe-Bob happens to be friends with Civic Engineer Tom Jones, it would be prudent for Joe-Bob to pose the question to an expert in the field before going to County Staff. I could accept that. However, given the nature of this request, Council President Bud Otis should have gone to the County Attorney, not a private citizen.
UPDATE: As new information has presented itself, I reserve the right to change my opinion. If we assume that Mr. Umak was consulted for a technical question, there is still the question of why the e-mail was forwarded in the first place. The e-mail is public record (unless deleted by the Outlook client, as we have now discovered), but does that justify sending it along?
Lastly, if Council President Bud Otis is going to outsource his constituent services (when County Executive Jan Gardner let’s him perform his duties), why bother to pay the salaries of Council staff? If volunteers are willing to do the job, let’s just appoint them as special advisers and save the County some $$$.
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