This article is part of a weeklong series for Sunshine Week, which highlights the importance of transparent government. Articles about public information run through Sunday.
Aberdeen City Council members say they're careful about exchanging email among themselves.
When City Attorney Adam Altman sends an email to council members, “I always tell them be sure not to hit ‘reply all’ on the email because that’s basically encouraging a debate. Debate should be held in public,” Altman said.
There's no law that says council members can't click “reply all,” he said. But Altman discourages it because he doesn't want to see council members getting into the habit of replying to all of their fellow council members. He is trying to err on the side of caution and pass on good practices, he said.
Altman wants to avoid having council members engage in “debate amongst themselves, which becomes a violation of some of the open meeting laws.”
The message has gotten through to council members.
“Our city attorney has pretty much put us on notice that a blast email is not appropriate,” said Councilman David Bunsness.
An email from one council member to another is not a problem, Altman said.
“One on one, no problem. That's how work gets done,” Altman said.
It's perfectly acceptable for one council member to ask, “What do you think of this?” or “Hey, how are you going to vote?” he said. Council members can also ask another for information.
Mayor Mike Levsen said if you communicate with one other council member, you can argue a position. Such communication is no different from talking to another council member on the street or on the phone, he said.
But council members can't try to make a point in an email that's sent to more than one person, Levsen said. That fact has been made plain to them since he became city manager eight or nine years ago, he said. They learned quickly, he said, that whenever there's an email going around among council members that “if it ever drifted into any kind of advocacy for a position,” people “immediately reminded each other, ‘Hey, we can't do that.’ ”
Levsen said email communication is important because the council does not have subcommittees.
Because email is so useful, council members don't want to “drift into something” that would be a violation or create an impediment to them doing their work, Levsen said.
Bunsness and fellow council members Tom Agnitsch, Laure Swanson and Jennifer Slaight-Hansen said they don't communicate with each other much between meetings. Todd Campbell also said communication is a rarity unless the council is working on something important.
Slaight-Hansen said she will often call the city manager or a department head to ask a question. She doesn't like to go to a meeting unprepared, she said.
Councilman Clint Rux said contact between council members varies. Council members communicate more often at budget time, for instance, he said.
Councilman Jeff Mitchell said if you're a City Council member, you have to communicate with people. He likened it to a student doing his homework before a test.
Mitchell said he prefers to communicate with other people in person. He’ll use the phone, but he prefers not to use email.
Swanson also said her communication with other council members tends to be in person.