Email privacy questioned

Published 8:54 pm Saturday, May 28, 2011

In the wake of an unpopular city budget that hiked taxes and instituted new trash fees, some Suffolk citizens are unhappy with the way emails to City Council members are handled.

During the budget process, several residents sent complaints to the published email address for their council representative — — only to receive a mostly standardized response from the city manager’s office detailing the city’s justification for the tax and fee changes.

To some, that may appear like the City Council never sees the emails at all. But that’s not the case, said city spokeswoman Debbie George.

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City Clerk Erika Dawley receives the emails, George said. She then sends a response back to the citizen to let them know their email has been received and perhaps to request additional information.

Dawley then forwards the email to city staff for follow-up if needed, George said. For example, a complaint about trash pickup would be forwarded to the Public Works department to be addressed.

At the same time, Dawley takes steps to get the email to the appropriate City Council member, based on that representative’s preferred method of receiving them. Some have the emails forwarded to their personal accounts, others have them faxed and others pick up printed copies on a regular basis.

“She makes sure that the council persons get those emails,” George said.

Some area localities, like Portsmouth, handle emails to City Council members in the same way. Others, like Virginia Beach and Isle of Wight County, provide personalized government addresses for members of the City Council or Board of Supervisors. One supervisor in Isle of Wight County even has her personal email address published on the website.

Suffolk City Councilman Michael Duman said he has no problem with the way the emails are handled, but understands that some folks might be upset about others seeing the messages.

“I know several citizens took objection to the fact it was being filtered,” Duman said. “In every case, it’s forwarded to us.”

Duman said that if the resident is writing about an issue with a city service, it can be handled more quickly than if he received the message personally.

“If it’s an issue concerning maintenance or utilities or anything of that nature, they can take care of it in more expeditious fashion than a citizen contacting me,” he said. “It kind of eliminates the middleman in those cases.”

However, Duman noted, he understands that people may not want their emails about personal issues or opinions to be seen by others.

“I also put out my personal email so citizens can email me directly if they do not want anyone within the city administration seeing it first,” he said.

He added that he would get city administrators to add the personal address — — to the city website.

Those who don’t want city employees potentially reading their emails do have other options to contact their representatives. Each City Council representative has either a home, cellular or business phone number listed on the city website, and most have their home address published.