City officials quarreling about emails

By JOY BROWN
STAFF WRITER

Findlay administrators and city Auditor Jim Staschiak are quarreling again, this time over emails.

City administrators obtained certain auditor’s office emails directly from the city’s computer personnel, without consulting Staschiak. That prompted the auditor, an elected official, to call for a public records policy review.

Obtaining information that way “scared the hell out of me,” Staschiak told an informal “ad hoc” meeting of council members that he requested last week. Staschiak said some auditor’s office records contain information that by law must be kept confidential, such as health care specifics and Social Security numbers.

The administration recently collected certain emails from Staschiak’s and Deputy Auditor Ginger Sampson’s accounts.

Law Director Don Rasmussen asked Mayor Lydia Mihalik to enlist the Computer Services Department’s help in obtaining copies of emails between Staschiak, Sampson, and Paul Rutter of Columbus-based Bricker and Eckler, a law firm that serves as the city’s bond counsel.

Mihalik and Rasmussen said the action was administrative, and was done because city auditors have been gathering information on various bond-related matters from a different Bricker and Eckler lawyer than the attorney Rasmussen communicates with.

The information provided by those two lawyers has sometimes conflicted, Rasmussen said, and cost the city additional money.

Rasmussen cited a recent ordinance, approved by council, to enter into a customer relationship with the Ohio Water Development Authority for discounted future loans. Rasmussen said instead of using the development authority’s legislative template for such agreements, which would have been free, Staschiak had Bricker and Eckler create a custom ordinance that cost $386.

“This is something that’s been a problem the entire time” the current administration has been serving,

Rasmussen told the council members. “I give my opinion on an issue, and (Staschiak) says ‘no, that’s not true.’ He’s never liked my opinion” and has sometimes operated according to others’ guidelines, according to the law director, who is also an elected official.

Staschiak is within his right to discuss bond compliance matters with the law firm, Rasmussen said, but the law director said he has the last word on city government legal matters pertaining to bonds and everything else.

“I guess it’s my problem that he (Staschiak) doesn’t understand that that’s what I was elected to do,” Rasmussen said.

Auditors and administrators are in agreement that the emails obtained are public records, but disagree about the way they were gathered.

Staschiak and Sampson said they don’t understand why Mihalik or Rasmussen didn’t simply ask them for the emails.

“If one elected official needs information from another elected official, then to not go to that person directly I think is silly, childish, it’s not proper and it’s wrong,” Staschiak said. “I’m in charge of those records. There’s no reason not to ask me for any emails that have to do with city business.”

Staschiak also mentioned the city’s computer, email and Internet use policy, which states, “employees should not attempt to access another employee’s email without their authorization.”

But administrators contend that all such records are the property of the city.

The mayor said that as the city government leader, she has the right to view any records at any time.

That function is especially essential when it comes to investigating potential matters of impropriety or actions that might hamper the city’s ability to operate, she and Rasmussen said.

Mihalik and Rasmussen added that Staschiak has released several records pertaining to them and their offices, and has not notified them ahead.

Computer Services Supervisor Justin Weddington said ever since his department was created, employees there have occasionally received information requests and have always responded to them.

He said at one point he contacted the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for general advice, and a representative there recommended compliance.

Weddington reports to the mayor. But the latest dispute over records has made him nervous, he said.

“We do obviously have confidential data that we handle,” Weddington said. He expressed concern about the city’s public records policy, which he said isn’t very descriptive.

The three-page policy, last updated in 2011, refers to “records custodians,” but doesn’t define who they are.

Staschiak said the policy also doesn’t address other forms of communication, such as social media posts, or include record retention schedules.

Rasmussen agrees the policy should be “tightened” to reflect the changing times and to provide more specificity. He also thinks copies of public records requests should be forwarded to a central location so that administrators can ensure compliance is being met in a proper and timely way, which is another opinion that doesn’t suit Staschiak.

Rasmussen said he hasn’t provided legal reviews of all past public records requests, but said if there isn’t full compliance, then the city as a whole would be liable.

“The requests need to go to the City of Findlay, because guess what, they wouldn’t be suing you, Jim,” if compliance wasn’t met, Rasmussen told Staschiak last week. “The thing that makes it really difficult with public documents is … the courts are all over the place with, yes, you have to disclose this, or oh no, you can’t disclose that. It’s really tough.”

“The question I’ve asked myself is, can we say with certainty that we are managing everything properly, the database, emails, everything? Do we have trustworthy systems in regard to managing our information processes?” Staschiak told the informal “ad hoc” council meeting.

Staschiak said a specialist could be hired for about $5,000 to help the city update its policy. Council members asked Rasmussen to first research policies at other similarly-sized Ohio cities.

Weddington has been invited to provide his views when the “ad hoc” council committee meets again at 5 p.m. today.

Rasmussen said any changes to the city’s public records policy are ultimately decided by the administration, not by City Council.

At last week’s committee meeting, Staschiak said if he doesn’t think records generated in his office will be handled appropriately, he’ll take matters into his own hands by buying his own computer server, at the city’s expense, and encrypting his records.

This isn’t the first jousting match between Staschiak and administrators. They have quarreled in the past about budget matters, financial projections, and long-term planning.

Brown: 419-427-8496
Send an E-mail to Joy Brown
Twitter: @CourierJoy

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