OOR: Council's private emails are public

By By Dave Greber

May 18, 2012 Updated May 18, 2012 at 11:50 PM EDT

The borough of Montrose was delivered a blow Friday in a Pennsylvania open records case that forces them to turn over email discussions detailing their true feelings about a hydrant used to deliver water to Dimock Twp. residents.

It's the latest in a series of setbacks for the Susquehanna County seat, whose council members have repeatedly tried to shield the public from their activities.

Action News filed a Right to Know request to the borough in February, requesting emails sent among the seven-member council and their attorney that discuss a privately-owned water spigot on Jessup Street.

In one particular string of emails, council members used colorful language to lash out at various residents, including Craig Stephens, of nearby Silver Lake Twp., who owns the hydrant and uses it to deliver water to members of the Dimock community.

Residents living along Dimock's Carter Road claim their water is polluted by natural gas drilling.

In one exchange, Councilman Sean Granahan refers to Stevens and others as thugs, and says he would have had them thrown in jail for wishing to record a public meeting.

Action News requested emails that included discussion about the hydrant from Jan. 1 through Feb. 23. The request was initially denied by the borough, citing attorney-client privilege, and claiming council members' personal email addresses are not public record.

Action News appealed the borough's stance, pointing out the borough does not issue public officials email addresses, leaving council members to discuss public business using personal email accounts.

The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records agreed.

"...{T}he Commonwealth Court has clearly established that where 'emails (are on personal email accounts)... between Council members, discussing Borough business, and those discussions document a transaction or activity of the Borough...' the e-mails are 'records' of an agency," according to the ruling.

The ruling continues:

"The council members are an integral part of borough government. Therefore, we (the Office of Open Records) cannot say that simply because emails are in the personal accounts of individual Council members that they are not in the possession of the Borough. Accordingly, because these emails are in the possession of the Borough, by and through the individual Council members, these emails are presumably public records ..."

The borough has 30 days to provide the requested emails to Action News.

Councilwoman Julanne Skinner said she was surprised by the ruling, but said she supported its message.
"Transparency in local government is essential," Skinner said. "Not only at the borough or township level, but the county level and all levels."

Messages were left for four other council members. None could be reached for comment.

Walk-out, business pushed aside

In anticipation of a planned discussion of the hydrant during a Montrose council meeting in February, Stephens and others showed up with cameras to record the proceedings. Members of the council, led by council President Tom Lamont, walked out of the meeting, pushing unfinished business aside.

In the meetings that followed, council members declined to discuss the matter with the media and the public, saying they had no problem with what Stephens was doing.

Action News obtained a council email string dated Feb. 7 that showed otherwise.

In one exchange, Councilman Sean Granahan refers to Stevens and others as "thugs" and "lake poachers."

In a Feb. 7 response to Councilwoman Julanne Skinner, Granahan writes: "I cannot speak for the rest, but I for one did not anticipate the Dimock thuggery from last night."

He said Dimock residents are "looking to pirate our water and pocket the proceeds from their royalties and settlements."

To which Skinner responds: "Might I suggest that we not refer to fellow citizens in such a condescending manner? It will not bode well if emails should ever be subpeoenaed (sic)."

Council members have declined repeated requests for comment.

The latest blow

The council's Feb. 14 meeting drew media from several organizations, inquiring about the walkout, and about the adoption of new rules that governed audio and video recording and audience comments during public meetings.

The new rules, adopted by a vote of 4-1 -Skinner the lone dissenter - restricted audience comments to borough residents only, and required cameras to be unmanned, mounted on tripods and placed in the back of the room.

A settlement later reached behind closed doors in Susquehanna County Court scaled back the prohibitions, allowing anyone, standing or sitting, to use recording devices. Council approved the new rules, based on the court agreement, March 5.

Hydrant could be moved

In April, the borough ordered the spigot to be ripped out, and Stephens' water deliveries to stop.
A letter sent to the owner of the property on which the spigot is located, Monica Marta, is signed by borough Zoning Officer James Smith. It says they're in violation of a borough zoning ordinance, although it did not specify which ordinance was being violated.

The matter has yet to be settled, according to Stephens.

Meanwhile, Stephens says he plans to move the hydrant to an undisclosed location, and continue the daily deliveries to Dimock Twp.