By John Chambliss & Rick Rousos
LAKELAND | Emails obtained by The Ledger show city administrators and elected officials used their personal accounts to conduct a variety of city business, including issues involving last year’s scandals at the Lakeland Police Department.
Records obtained by The Ledger show former Mayor Gow Fields and City Manager Doug Thomas used their personal email accounts to communicate with Tucker/Hall, a public relations firm hired to help shape the city’s message during the fallout from a widespread sex scandal and other problems at the Lakeland Police Department.
Mayor Howard Wiggs also uses his personal email account for city emails.
Since communications began with Tucker/Hall last summer, Fields said he corresponded with the agency 95 times by personal email.
Thomas’ emails total more than 20.
It isn’t against Florida law to use personal email accounts for public business, but doing so can be problematic, said Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.
What is against the law, she said, is not providing such emails when asked.
The Lakeland emails came to light when The Ledger began asking for public records related to work by Tucker/Hall. The Ledger asked City Attorney Tim McCausland for documents Feb. 25.
On March 4, following several requests, The Ledger received nine documents; the next day, the city sent 43 more pages. Among those was an email from Thomas’ personal email account, sent Feb. 14.
When asked whether there were other personal emails, Kevin Cook, communications director for the city, said the city wasn’t the custodian of such emails and The Ledger would have to request those separately from Thomas.
When asked, Thomas then sent some of his; he sent the bulk of them a week later, saying he had discovered more in his “sent” box.
Thomas said he generally uses his personal email account while he’s working on his computer at home outside of normal working hours. His city email account is connected to his mobile devices but not his home computer.
Wiggs said Cook has access to his personal email accounts and can mine them for public records.
Fields said he used his business email address to send and receive important emails so they wouldn’t get lost in the flood of routine emails he received on his city account.
When someone makes a public records request to a government official for a worker’s emails, the onus is on the city to provide all the records, Petersen said.
“People making a request to a city for emails shouldn’t have to provide private email addresses to be searched,” Petersen said. She said people shouldn’t have to ask for email addresses of all accounts that might be used by a commissioner.
The best way for government workers to assure the law is being followed while using a personal email account is to copy all emails about government business into the government server, Petersen said.
Other Lakeland city commissioners said they also receive city emails on their personal or work accounts but responses are typically sent to their government email addresses.
“I always copy the City Hall account regardless of how mundane the response is,” Commissioner Don Selvage said.
Most commissioners said their email system is set up to receive commission questions at their government and personal work accounts.
“I respond through personal email because I’m not at City Hall five days a week,” Commissioner Phillip Walker said.
Commissioner Justin Troller said he always forwards questions from residents that arrive at his personal account to city officials.
Administrators typically respond to both the resident and Troller’s city account.