Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Online Politicians Find Privacy Elusive

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Online Politicians Find Privacy Elusive

Article excerpt

The elected officials in this desert city used to push the 'send' button on their e-mail systems often.

With the click of a computer mouse, Phoenix City Council members would have their say and find out where colleagues stood on an issue. It was simple, hassle-free.

But not lately. E-mail has come under scrutiny recently by public watchdogs who question whether computer messaging among council members marks a return to the days when decisions were made behind closed doors. Across the country, elected officials and watchdog groups are grappling with the issue of defining what's private and what's public when public officials communicate in cyberspace. At issue, say observers, are questions of political responsibility and public access to the inner workings of government decision-making. "It's definitely on the radar screen," says Kyle Niederpruem, Freedom of Information chairwoman for the National Society of Professional Journalists. "We hear about these things all the time.... People are talking about it." In Wisconsin, citizens are embroiled in a battle over gaining access to the e-mail of public officials exchanging messages through a commercial internet provider. In Massachusetts, a bulletin board used by public officials caused a flap because only members could gain access. Like Arizona, most states have laws that require city councils and other public bodies to hold discussions and make decisions in open meetings. These so-called "sunshine laws" generally state that anytime a quorum of a panel is gathered, it's a meeting. Critics say e-mail blurs the lines. Does a message sent to all city council members constitute a meeting? What about an exchange between two members of a three-person subcommittee? OTHERS say these electronic messages are simply the electronic equivalent of one-on-one conversations that commonly occur between council members looking to line up votes, whether it be on the telephone, in offices at city hall, or elsewhere. …

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