NAPLES — Bonita Springs City Attorney Audrey Vance makes sure to note the implications at the top of all her e-mails.
“Attention City Council members,” the note at the top of her e-mails begins.
“Please do not respond to this electronic message by hitting the ‘reply all’ since other members of Council are copied. This could create a situation where there is communication outside of a properly advertised meeting.”
Limiting communication outside a meeting is becoming increasingly difficult as electronic messaging – like e-mail, Twitter and text messaging – becomes a more acceptable form of communications in local government.
“In the last six or seven years, e-mail has really transformed government,” Naples City Manager Bill Moss said. “It’s very convenient and quick.”
Naples City Council members receive hundreds of e-mails each month to their city accounts. Those e-mails can be anything from a complaint from a citizen to an e-mail from Moss about upcoming business.
The majority of those mass mailings go without a response from City Council members, but occasionally one slips through the cracks and a council member responds by hitting the “reply all” button.
But that action isn’t necessarily a violation of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law, said Barbara Peterson, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a public records advocacy organization supported by the media, including the Daily News.
“The attorney general has said a member of a city council can put his or her thoughts in writing, but in doing so they can’t solicit the thoughts (of other members),” Peterson said. “Having done so, the person sort of hogs the field because then the other commissioners are constrained in responding.”
The constraints include not hitting “reply all” to an e-mail that other council members received.
But that’s just what happened seven times in March in the city of Naples, according to a Daily News public records search.
The e-mails — sent by council members Doug Finlay, Teresa Heitmann and Sam Saad — were in response to e-mails about the city’s parking garage, the proposed dog park, street lights, the beach fund and an invitation to a Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce event.
Finlay, on one occasion, realized his error and sent a second e-mail apologizing.
“Oooops,” he wrote. “That went to all (Council). Don’t reply.”
Moss said it’s rare that council members reply to everyone, and when it does happen he doubts it’s intentional.
“In my view it’s not been a major problem,” Moss said. “Generally speaking, this City Council doesn’t like to receive any correspondence from other members.”
Vance said her council is “pretty savvy” when it comes to understanding the Sunshine Law and how it applies to e-mail. That doesn’t mean, though, that Bonita council members haven’t hit the “reply all” button in the past.
“We’ve had issues where council members hit ‘reply all,’ ” she said. “We’ve been lucky; my council is pretty savvy.”
The Collier County School District also has been lucky, district attorney John Fishbane said.
School Board members haven’t had any Sunshine violations since he came on as the district’s attorney.
Fishbane said he reminds board members, old and new, about the dangers of ethics violations and urges them to be careful who they reply to and how they reply.
“My principle is that everything should be out in the open,” he said. “There can be no interactive discussion. I think you are acting at the edge if you raise potential matters or business that could be discussed at a later meeting.”
Not every community is so lucky though, Peterson said.
Peterson said more communities are calling her office with questions than in years past. That’s because the use of electronic messaging is becoming more acceptable, she said.
“They’re just not understanding the consequences and the law in regards to those kinds of communications,” she said. “It’s just that they don’t understand the application, or the implication, of the law.”
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Staff Writer Katherine Albers contributed to this report.