The Douglas County Political Action Committee (DCPAC) says there was a breach of privacy with regard to the county’s Connect Douglas Final Report from Collaborative Firm that included the names of those attending town hall meetings on the proposed bus system in the appendix of a report that was then displayed on the county’s website for several days.
The document "Communication Plan," prepared by the Collaborative Firm, which has been posted on the Douglas County website, was said to include names, addresses and cell phone information on attendees.
Collaborative Firm held Open Houses in each commission district to gather information from citizens about the proposed bus system. But that information was removed soon after DCPAC complained to the county.
On July 26, DCPAC reviewed the report that had been uploaded to the county website, and discovered citizens' personal information had been made available in the report.
A post on the DCPAC Facebook page reads in part: “When Collaborative Firm compiled their report and made it available to the public, the personal information should not have been included in the Appendix, or they could have included this information, but redacted for public viewing. When Douglas County took possession of this report, they should have redacted all of the personal information. Instead, it was published on the county website for all to access.”
Ted Meeker, an attorney representing the DCPAC group, issued a letter to County Attorney Ken Bernard demanding that the citizens' information be taken down.
“We cannot comprehend how Douglas County could breach the privacy of my clients in such a callous manner. That information would not have been accessible to a person making an open records request,” Meeker stated in his letter.
In his response, Bernard indicated that the nature of the information or how it was gathered was not “automatically subject” to exemption under the Georgia Personal Identity Protection Act.
“...in general, a report which includes names, addresses, and email addresses of residents who provided that information when attending the town hall meetings is not automatically subject to exemption generally for non-Open Records Act purposes,” Bernard responded.
But Bernard went on to indicate that despite this “...because [the information] was incidental to and not substantive...” the county was removing the information from its website.
An attempt by the Sentinel to check this confirmed that the information was removed from the online report.
DCPAC subsequently contacted all of the open house attendees to inform them of what had transpired and assured them that their information had been taken down.
But DCPAC on its Facebook page was asking for more than just taking down the information.
“We believe Douglas County and the Collaborative Firm owe an apology to the people of Douglas County for being careless with our private information, with the assurance that this will never happen again.”
Regarding the posting of the information initially, Commission Chairman Romona Jackson Jones responded by email, “This matter was addressed July 26th, by redaction after receiving a citizen concern regarding the posted information.”
Jones, Bernard and Douglas County Communications Director Rick Martin did not respond to multiple messages from the Sentinel questioning whether the county will continue publishing personal information about citizens commenting at county meetings nor did they address why the information from the Connect Douglas report was published and then later removed.
However, District 4 Commissioner Ann Jones Guider said she believed the information was published by "accident." Guider said the Collaborative Firm made a "mistake" and that information provided by citizens who attend county government meetings in the future shouldn't fear that their information will be published by the county. Guider did note that the personal information citizens provide when signing in at meetings could be obtained by an Open Records Request.
Multi-Modal Transportation Director Gary Watson, contacted by phone, said, “The only thing I can say about that is it was an oversight that we did it, and we apologize for it, and we took it off as quickly as it was brought to our attention,” Watson said.
Heather Denis, chair, DCPAC, responded by phone, and said the report provided good information from the meetings, but personal information in the appendices should have been removed before going on the internet.
And she also noted on the DCPAC Facebook page, “It’s our stance that the government should be committed to preserving our privacy at all costs. There are too many instances of identity theft in today’s climate.”
Denis noted that too many instances in which personal information is exposed is in conflict with the democratic ideal of encouraging participation and could have a chilling effect on citizens who will either attend public meetings or who may be concerned that offering their personal details on sign-in sheets or other documents may end-up posted online.
Connect Douglas referenced in the documents is the name of the county’s fixed-route bus system. The website is: www.celebratedouglascounty.com/ConnectDouglas.