Bonita Springs councilwoman charged with deleting public e-mails

Bonita Springs city council member Janet Martin.

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER, Daily News

Bonita Springs city council member Janet Martin.

State prosecutors charged Bonita Springs Councilwoman Janet Martin with a civil violation for deleting e-mails from her personal account that addressed city business.

She faces a $500 fine, but criminal charges were not filed because there was no evidence she intentionally violated the public records law, according to a press release from the State Attorney's Office.

"In this instance, although we can prove a technical violation occurred, we found no evidence to show that Ms. Martin was intentionally attempting to conceal public records as would be required to bring a criminal charge," Assistant State Attorney Dean Plattner stated in the release.

Martin received a summons to appear in court on Oct. 20, where the fine will be imposed if the violation is proven.

Martin said Thursday that she was unable to comment and that her attorney, Wilbur Smith, would handle any statements.

Smith said he had reached a deal with the State Attorney's Office a couple of weeks ago that the charge would be noncriminal and a small fine would be imposed.

“It's a way to resolve this that satisfies everyone,” Smith said. “It's like a speeding ticket. The fact that you don't know you're speeding, you're still (getting a ticket).”

Smith said the charge and fine will have no implications for Martin in her service to the city and they are glad the issue is resolved.

“Everybody's happy,” Smith said.

Mayor Ben Nelson was sympathetic and said public records laws could trip up anyone in public office.

“I would hope that everyone realizes that this is something that, although it looks bad, it's pretty innocuous and a pretty easy thing to do,” Nelson said.

While the Sunshine Law was meant to keep government open and records accessible to the public, the restrictions on communication and records keeping can create problems for lawmakers.

“It is so easy to unintentionally make a mistake,” Nelson said.

Since the incident arose earlier this year, the city has made an effort to centralize city e-mails by having staff members and committee volunteers forward their e-mails to one location.

“We're developing a system to where this doesn't happen again,” Nelson said. “Our goal is to make it real easy if you want the stuff it's available. We're getting really close.”

City Council agreed in June to pay for Martin's defense when the matter is final. While the city has not paid anything to date, said Finance Director Lisa Roberson, it has received one invoice for $3,500.

Councilman Bill Lonkart, who voted against paying for her defense, said the city shouldn't have to pay for legal services, particularly for something he felt should not have happened in the first place.

“I'm sad about these kind of things because it could have been avoided,” Lonkart said.

Bonita Springs isn't the only government to be penalized for deleting city e-mails from a personal computer.

Marco Island City Councilman Chuck Kiester was fined $500 in February 2008 in a similar situation and a judge said during that proceeding that Kiester had “made a mockery of the law.”

“I think that they all are very aware that their public and private accounts are public record,” said Lisa Douglass, spokeswoman for the city of Marco Island.

The city had been in the process of providing city server-based e-mail accounts where correspondence would be archived. Still there are no clear safety nets for e-mails on private accounts, Douglass said, except voluntarily forwarding the messages to the city.

Jude Reichenthal, the former chairman of the now-defunct Communications Advisory Board, filed a complaint against Martin with the State Attorney's Office after he requested two years worth of e-mails and he suspected she hadn't handed everything over to him.

“The only comment I have is that the State Attorney is obviously doing his job,” he said about the charge filed Thursday.

Reichenthal said he did not agree with the State Attorney's assessment of the situation, however, that the violation of the records law had not been intentional.

Reichenthal requested the e-mails after his board was disbanded under what he believed was City Council's attempt to thwart its efforts to make city government more transparent.

“Why would someone want to prevent the people of Bonita Springs from being knowledgeable?” he asked. “The only conclusion was that they were hiding something.”

The request produced about 80,000 e-mails and said he did not have a chance to look at all of them. Of those he had read, he has not found anything overtly criminal, he said.

Bonita Springs resident Dom Da Silva said he could understand how Martin made the mistake if she didn't know the laws.

Da Silva, whose first language is Portuguese, had to face the music when he parked his car by a sign that said “No Standing.”

“I didn't know -- no standing means no parking,” he said. He still got a ticket. “Ignorance is not an excuse from the law. I feel for her a little. ... Good luck to her. We have many other problems (to worry about).”

Dan Cline, who also lives in Bonita Springs, had less sympathy and said she should be held accountable for any action that is part of her job description.

“Any other work, you have to absolutely be accountable,” Cline said. “Five hundred dollars should wake her up a bit. It would me.”

Reichenthal and his fellow former board member, Ron Pure, now find themselves the subject of a public records request.

Bonita Springs resident Peter Justus in June requested copies of e-mails from personal accounts that related to city business while the two served on the advisory board, said City Clerk Dianne Lynn.

Reichenthal said he had not been made aware that his e-mails were subject to the Sunshine Law but has since supplied the e-mails.

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Follow Bonita Springs reporter Tara E. McLaughlin at Facebook.com/tara.dailynews and Twitter.com/ndn_tmclaughlin.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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