Monday, May 08, 2006

Response to Cousar and Slusher

Jim Cousar, an attorney working for the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), and former councilmember and current city employee, Daryl Slusher published a guest editorial in the Austin Statesman opposing Prop. 1. Here is a response.

Slusher and Cousar most prominently argue that all e-mail would have to go online.

This is simply not true. The Amendment sets an overall policy goal of placing all public information online “as expeditiously as possible” and “to the greatest extent practical.” This goal is set in the framework of efficiency and the city’s own ongoing efforts to manage its business online. The City would determine what is "practical" based on budget, legal, and technical constraints.

The Amendment then sets out very specific measures. Two of these specific mandates directly address e-mail and read as follows:
“In order to better preserve written electronic communication for public disclosure, the City must establish a system that automatically archives all incoming and outgoing electronic communication that deals with City business to and from [top city officials].” (Section 3(c)(1))

“Public information also includes the following categories that must be produced in response to a public information request: . . . Email or other written electronic communication to or from a public official concerning City business is public information, including communications to or from privately owned email accounts or computers.” (Section 4(E))
This second provision is a restatement of current Texas Public Information Act law. It was included because there is reason to believe that City officials are not retaining or producing this public information when it is requested as required by law.

These two provisions make clear that e-mail is to be preserved, not deleted, and produced when requested. It says nothing about placing email online. Further, the City’s own information officer has agreed that posting email online is “not practical” because of the cost and difficulty of screening email for various exceptions to public disclosure.

Cousar and Slusher also argued that the Open Government amendment would expose “informers” or whistleblowers. The amendment preserves all exceptions to disclosure under state and federal law except for a few, very specific “optional” exceptions that are circumscribed. Criminal investigation files, attorney-client and attorney work product files, personal privacy and personnel files retain all their protections, with the lone exception of making police misconduct records public to the same extent they are public at the Travis County sheriff’s office. Nothing in the amendment requires disclosure of the contents of conversations between anyone – meetings with top level city officials must be identified only by “subject.”

The City is fully capable of managing its internal HR investigations as well as external citizen complaints of possible wrongdoing within the framework of the amendment and without compromising privacy, security, or internal affairs.

Finally, to be clear, the City’s inflated cost estimate for implementing Prop. 1 was thrown out of the ballot language because City representatives admitted that the basis of the estimate (that literally all information had to go online in contradiction with privacy laws) was not reliable and was not required by the amendment. The City’s information officer has confirmed the estimate of $2-3 million for upfront implementation of the mandatory provisions of the amendment that was determined by the Liveable City independent study.

In short, this amendment will cost less, and do more for Austin.


At 12:22 PM, Blogger Austin Irrigation & Landscaping said...

At my job, I use public data a lot for marketing. Sometimes it's like extracting teeth to get some simple data from the city. They have it but they don't like to release it.

For instance, I was trying to get a list of all the gated communities to combine with crime rate statistics (in order to sell landscape lighting). The police department and the fire department and utility department has a database of all of the locations of these communities but they won't give it up.

Austin does seem to be more transparent then most cities but we should be an example to the rest of the country and be even more open.

Thank you for all your efforts.

At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, we need to be very, very open so that private interests can use our online system for data mining to try to sell you stuff. That's a really good reason to be for this.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger JS Hatcher said...

It's not like this person wants to perform an illegal act. This is a business, a local one in fact, trying to provide a service to our community.

This seems, to me, an innovative use of open information to provide new business models and new services to the people of Austin.

We live in a free market economy, and part of that is well, a market. If you want to forbid someone from trying new ways to participate in the market, then you should think about what it means to live in an open society.

At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Julie Adams said...

I'm so glad this prop failed. I actually read the propr and, as a programmer and now project manager for just these sorts of efforts, I can honestly say that not only is proposition 1 poorly worded... it is unrealistic in its goals. The multi-million dollar estimates for this proposal are indeed right on. I am currently managing a real-time medical ordering system and patient health data system for a group of hospitals and it is a 5 year project (to post patient health information real time as it occurs) - and not at all with the sort of massive scope this prop entails for both data gathering and security.

For instance, the prop requires 'real-time' online posting of all calendars and phone logs of most city officials. 'Real time' in the computer world means right now... less than one minute from the time of entry. I don't think this is what the writers of this proposal meant since the request is damn near impossible real-time.

Additionally the technical programming and security around finding and masking private information (particularly real time) such as private email addresses, names, personal addresses, etc is tremendous. In healthcare just trying to encrypt all healthcare communication so that a patient's name, mrn and any private health information don't appear together in an unsecured setting is difficult and time consuming... and this is without the added burden of posting the information on a completely publicly accessible domain like a website.

What I find completely boggling is this:
This provision must be implemented within six months of approval of this ammendment.

Complete logging of all phone calls, emails, calendar meetings, telephone conferences, happy hours, luncheons and all attendees in 'real-time' within six months?? Wow.

I'm a little saddened that we have policy makers so computer illiterate that they don't see the technical mountain that this is. And I'm comforted that 70% of voters knew better.

Next time do better homework.


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