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Wednesday, May 1,2013

Computergate codified

City Council adopts computer usage policy city attorney says is unenforceable

by Sam Inglot
A new internal policy requiring City Council members to sign out their computers to take home and that restricts the use of social media websites is unenforceable, the city attorney says.

After three months and seven drafts in the Council Personnel Committee, the City Council approved a resolution Monday night that governs Council member use of city-issued laptops, desktop computers and cell phones. It is a reaction to an incident several months ago involving Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar’s city-issued laptop. 

Here’s the kicker: City Attorney Janene McIntyre says it’s not enforceable and the whole thing will need to be reworked. 

“You can’t enforce it. So, therefore, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” McIntyre said Monday following the Council’s meeting. 

McIntyre said the City Charter doesn’t allow Council members to discipline other Council members on anything short of a criminal act. The new policy says that technology use can be forfeited if a Council member breaks the rules. 

“Plus, there are a lot of issues with the document itself,” McIntyre said, referring to some of its language. “But even with some of those things being addressed, they can’t enforce what they’re trying to enforce.” 

There are other options, such as amending the City Charter, she said. The Council voted 5-2 Monday on the policy, with Dunbar and Councilwoman Tina Houghton opposed. Councilwoman Jessica Yorko was absent. 

The Personnel Committee — made up of Council President Carol Wood and members A’Lynne Boles-Robinson, Brian Jeffries and Jody Washington — is a reaction to an incident involving Dunbar’s city-issued laptop, which was damaged during an argument with her husband last fall. Former Council office manager Diana Bitely said that Dunbar asked her to file a false police report in November saying it was stolen when Dunbar was asked to bring it in for software updates. Dunbar denied the accusation. Subsequently, the Personnel Committee questioned whether Dunbar was trying to cover up materials on the laptop.

An investigation by the City Attorney’s Office cleared Dunbar of any suspected criminal and ethical wrongdoing in the matter, even with Bitely’s statements taken as true.

At a February City Council meeting, Boles-Robinson said the reason the committee was looking at the policy was an old technology policy dating back to 2002 was “antiquated” — not because of Dunbar. Yet the resolution passed Monday mentions Dunbar’s incident in a “whereas” clause, which gives background on the resolution: “WHEREAS, in 2012 the President of Council was notified by a staff member of an incident with a Councilmember concerning a computer.”

“The reference to ‘the Council member,’ we all know it’s me,” Dunbar said from the dais Monday night. “It’s no secret: My computer broke and it was an issue. I know it’s about me. It’s a ridiculous policy. Don’t pretend this is not about me.”

Another reason the policy was pushed, according to its supporters, was that the Council should at least be held to the same standards as city employees. 

“As elected officials, we should be the example — not the exception,” said Washington, who supported the resolution. “We were told clearly that we can’t use the city employee policy.” Another policy governs technology use by city employees.

The new policy limits the use of social media to “accomplish tasks related to the City’s mission,” which include record keeping, “administrative support activities” and “database access.” No one else may use a Council member’s computer. If Council members want to take a laptop out of City Hall, they’ll have to check it out and say when it will be returned. 

The seven-page document also outlines what happens if equipment is damaged and who can authorize the replacement. For instances involving $500 or more, the Council must approve the expense by resolution. Council members are also not allowed to store or create personal information on city-issued equipment, according to the policy.

But the policy doesn’t mean anything right now. The fact that the city attorney says the policy is unenforceable was discussed at Monday’s meeting. 

“Right now, if you’re telling me this is not enforceable and there is no policy that governs us, we could take taxpayer-purchased equipment — laptop, cellphone, computer — in the office and do whatever we choose … which means we could throw it out the window, we could give it to a child going off to college, we could give it to a family member to use for personal use. Nothing says at this point that we couldn’t do those things,” said Boles-Robinson, who chairs the Personnel Committee. 

Despite the fact the committee worked on the policy for three months and it’s still unenforceable, Boles-Robinson said Monday night’s approval of the policy is a “starting point.” She said everything rests “squarely on the shoulders of the city attorney” to figure out how to make the policy enforceable.

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