Email and the City Council

The following motion appears on the agenda of the upcoming October 15, 2013 Lowell City Council meeting:

24. C. Elliott. Req City Mgr modify Council email system

This issue first came up at the council meeting this past Tuesday night. Here’s how I described it in my report on that meeting:

Councilor Elliott motion on procedure for handling emails sent to city councilors on city website. He says that he recently learned that the city manager gets a blind cc of all emails to councilors. Says he’s concerned that it’s an invasion of privacy of the senders of the emails. Elliott says he always understood the emails to be a confidential communication. The City Manager says he investigated it and the procedure was set up in 2005 (i.e., before Lynch was city manager). He says he does think it’s a good idea because many of the emails are requests for services and so if the city departments can get a head start on the problems it’s generally a good thing. He does say that the city manager’s office gets a cc of council emails but it doesn’t come to him. He says whatever the council wants is fine with him. (Ed. Note: All emails to anyone at city hall, councilor or otherwise, are public records that are public documents so they are not confidential). Chairman Mendonca asks Councilor Elliott if he wants to change the policy. He says he will file another motion on the topic. Councilor Kennedy says he has not problem with the manager receiving a copy but believes the senders should be made aware that is what is happening. Councilor Mercier says she didn’t know anything about what the “cc” is. Says if the sender wants something done, she wants the administration to start working on it right away.

As the “Editor’s Note” I inserted as I typed the above stated, any email sent to anyone who works for the city on a city computer is a public record that must be released upon a request under the state public records law. This is common knowledge, certainly of anyone working within government, so anyone feigning outrage over the “discovery” that emails sent to city councilors on the city computer system are not a private means of communication is either being deceptive or doesn’t have a basic grasp of the nature of online communications.

The discussion last Tuesday was also hindered by a not-very-accurate use of terminology as basic as “email” or “blind cc” which means “blind carbon copy”, a throwback to another era carried forward to the internet age which now means a copy of an email message is sent to a third party but the address of that third party and even the fact of the transmission to the third party is not evident to the named recipient of the message. When I hear “email” I think of the form that appears when I click the “compose” button on Outlook or Gmail or whatever other email application I’m using.

That’s not what’s going on at the city’s website as you can see from the following screenshots I captured from the city webpage.

Arrow pointing to “Contact a City Councilor”

The form that appears (Not a standard email)

It’s not the common email format but instead a form to be completed. You choose one, some or all city councilors, you choose the category of communication (Comment, complaint, compliment, general feedback, general question, other), insert a subject line, the content of your message, then the form allows you to “remain anonymous” or to identify yourself.

Before you can send your message, you must click “Yes” to having read the disclaimer which includes the following:

Since that’s probably too small to read, here’s what it says:

No privacy guarantees are made regarding any communications submitted or otherwise sent to the City of Lowell via this or any other system; all communications are subject to public information requests and applicable state laws. Be advised that submissions do not guarantee responses, though a best effort will be made to do so, as appropriate.

Now this wouldn’t be the first time a city council got tangled up in technology. Back in the summer of 2008, the furor was about texting during council meetings and one councilor made a motion to ban the practice. Kevin Broderick, a prolific texter and not coincidentally the youngest member of the council, was the obvious target of the motion. Here are my notes from the meeting describing Broderick’s response:

Councilor Kevin Broderick, who many suspect was the primary target of this motion, acknowledged that he did occasionally use the text message capability of his phone during council meetings. He suggested that this issue was a case of some councilors being more comfortable than others with advances in communications technology. He acknowledged the need to update council rules to address the use of email and text messaging but said that many of his constituents contacted him via those methods and they expected a rapid response. Broderick also said he should be able to use the internet access provided by his cell phone to go online to retrieve information relevant to the matter being discussed at the meeting.

Some councilors being more comfortable than others with advances in communications technology.” – Yes, and the reason the city’s website that transmitted a communication from a resident to a city councilor also forwarded a copy of that communication to the city manager’s office was because many of the city councilors at the time the system was set up did not use email and others did not monitor their email with the immediacy expected by constituents. The website message forwarding function was not created to spy on constituent to councilor communications but to assist technologically challenged city councilors by having the city manager’s office deal with issues quickly on behalf of the councilors and in so doing, make the councilors seem responsive to their constituents.

It’s ironic and a bit disingenuous that a system set up to aid city councilors is now being portrayed as nefarious behavior by this city manager. But it’s a convenient club for bashing the manager and so it and other issues like it will continue to be employed until Bernie Lynch departs.

10 Responses to Email and the City Council

  1. Laura M. MacNeil says:

    That entire exchange at the City Council meeting was ridiculous. C. Elliott should be fully aware of public records laws and the use of government systems.

  2. Jack Mitchell says:

    But. Laura, Councilor Elliott IS aware. He is simply pandering to the ignorance of many voters that prefer to think the worst. That’s his shtick!

    After months of news about the NSA domestic spying program, coupled with many older voters being ‘technology challenged,’ it is ripe pickings for the unscrupulous pol to let Lowellians conjure the worst in their well fertilized imaginations.

    It’s the best game in town! Exploited by The Sun, WCAP and desperate Councillors .

    See asbestos, library & parking garage.

  3. Jack Moynihan says:

    As always, thank you for posting these items factually, and limiting your “editorial comments.”

  4. Renee Aste says:

    When City Councilors respond using that site, they respond using their own personal emails I.e. Comcast/gmail accounts. I looked back at an email correspondence earlier this year. They were not city/state/us emails that a public employee would have.

  5. Laura M. MacNeil says:


    When someone submits something through a webform, the information is forwarded to an email address. The protocol, it seems, for the city is that it goes to a city employee and the councilor’s email. The information is still stored on city computers and is public communication – the same as a phone log. The Councillor may respond by their personal email but the initial communication originated through a public system. The sender should not assume confidentiality unless it is explicity stated.

  6. Lynne says:

    I’ve seen C. Rodney Elliot on his email on his laptop during meetings. I was sitting above him in the gallery. (This is a point I’m making in regards to the whole texting thing.)

    It’s not the false outrage that’ll get ya. It’s the hypocrisy.

  7. Joan Huot says:

    Having tried the city’s new website- I declare it a complete disaster for people with poor eyesight.. Print is too small, contrast is horrible and it is definitely difficult to use.
    So how anyone can even find the Council email is beyond me. If I want to contact a Councilor- I will send a letter to their home.

  8. Janice Morrow says:

    Though my memory may be failing me, I think that there is lots of pandering going on right now about the email thing. What it comes down to is how to allow residents, businesses, and voters to contact the council – something that has taken many forms over the years. Fortunately, having communicated with several of them through the years, I haven’t forgotten how this has evolved.

    Before email, before the web, before council meetings were televised, everyone wanting to contact a council would either call the Mayor’s office, or contact councilors directly on the phone.

    At one point (when Eileen was Mayor ?) the council unanimously decided that it wanted to use voicemail, to receive calls. As I recall, this failed somewhat disastrously, because councilors weren’t picking up their messages and returning calls. This was somewhat of an issue for sometime, and somehow led to councilors complaining about “voice mail jail” (which I always got a chuckle about).

    I think it was when Rita was mayor that the idea of using email came up. But wait – several councilors (Bud, Dick, and Rita come to mind) didn’t have home computers to check email, so the Mayor’s assistant (Diane?) would routinely deliver these to councilors. The same form used now was put in place, with the same disclaimers – which I believe there were several discussions/memos about (?). Of course, people (including myself) started complaining about this once we learned that our messages weren’t being delivered to councilors (again). At one point, instead of using the form, we were directed to the egov tool, which I think was also printed out – as I remember that once again, things weren’t being delivered to councilors (again), and then we were switched back to using the online form. I’ve always viewed the form as a way to initiate a dialogue, which some councilors have replied to (via their personal or business addresses), and others have just picked up the phone to call me.

    Obviously, I have communicated with them quite often through the years.

    When I pull up the form, there is an interesting part of the disclaimer that I don’t see anyone commenting about, and which may be important to point out. It is some sort of disclaimer that submissions don’t constitute notice of any sort. I think this is important, since you don’t want people pulling the ole “unless I otherwise hear back from you, I will do the following”, which can open a Pandora’s box of issues for the city.

    Anyhow, these are just some random observations, which I hope shed some light on the evolution of these communications as I recall it.

    And as for who reads my communications, I could care less – after all, I am submitting them to the city – its not like I’m writing my high school ex-boyfriend some secret letter I don’t want people to know about. Of course, it might be interesting to find out what some of the councilors that “protest too much” are receiving for communications, but I could care less, so long as I know that someone is listening on the other end, considering my communication, and doing what they can to assist me as a tax payer.

  9. Christopher says:

    My understanding is that printed communications (ie snail mail letters) are public as well. Seems there should be some way to protect constituent privacy when writing to a Councilor about a personal sensitive matter. I don’t really think the public has an unalienable right to know about every one to one communication, what the problem was and how it was resolved.

  10. Jack Mitchell says:

    The underlying truth, here, is uncomfortable for the elected Councillors. They, as individuals, have zilch authority. Their power comes from their collective will, expressed as a majority vote on the Council floor. That power comes from OUR collective will, expressed as a majority vote for the top 9 finishing candidates. We have delegated them OUR authority. They, themselves, possess none.

    Let that sink in, please.

    Any issue, raised by a Lowellian to a Councillor, must be brought to the floor, voted on, and if passed, acted upon by the City staff. The notion that a Councilor is a magic salve, the end all be all, to a public matter, is hooey splattered during campaign season.

    The assertion that transmittals to a public person, conducting public business* upon our behalf, is private is only promoted by ego maniacs and swallowed by followers.

    *There should be a caveat for ‘whistle blowing.’