County Finds Way to Offer Some Protection for Email Addresses

photo of Montgomery County councilmember Hans Riemer

Councilmember Hans Riemer

A fuss that brewed over the release of email addresses collected by Montgomery County looks like it will be resolved through a new regulation, county sources said.

In March, Bobby Lipman requested the email addresses that County Council members use to send newsletters to constituents. He also wanted the addresses that the county government sends its “Paperless Airplane” newsletter.

Because of Maryland’s Public Information Act, the county had to comply with Lipman’s request.

And because it was a PIA request, the county published the request — and the email addresses — on its Open Montgomery data portal, making the email addresses available to anyone.

Lipman is a founder of Moco Voters, a nonpartisan group that opposes developer money funding political campaigns.

“One of the reasons that we wanted the list was so that we can inform voters as to whether candidates are obtaining their campaign contributions from potential special interests,” Lipman said Tuesday.

Bethesda Beat broke the story about Lipman’s request March 22. Council members in the story expressed dismay that the county couldn’t do more to protect the shield the email addresses.

“I don’t think the public is well served by this,” Council President Roger Berliner said in the article, fearing marketers would get access to the list.

Councilmember Hans Riemer, who has led efforts to have more of the county’s public information published on Open Montgomery, had prepared legislation that would carve an exception into its public information policies just for email lists. “… the Open Data Implementation Plan must prohibit the County from making available on the web portal any document that is or contains an electronic mail distribution list,” according to Riemer’s draft legislation.

Lipman had no comment on Riemer’s bill.

The bill was to be introduced to the council Tuesday, but was pulled at the last minute. At first, the county accepted a possible legislative solution to the issue, but thought since Open Montgomery is a county agency, officials thought it should be handled through regulation, Leggett spokesman Pat Lacefield said.

Lacefield pointed out that the policy, or even Riemer’s legislation, would not change the county’s obligations under the PIA.

“If someone sends us a PIA for the list, we would still be sending them the list,” he said. What gets posted on the Open Montgomery site, he said, is done only under a county policy, not under any particular law, he said.

“I am a staunch advocate of government transparency, and was pleased to make Montgomery County one of the first jurisdictions in the Country to adopt an open data law in 2012,” Riemer said in a statement. “While our government needs transparency, our residents also have reasonable expectations of privacy. In this instance, where our policy would result in publicly posting the email addresses of thousands of residents simply because they signed up to receive newsletter updates, I believe the privacy interests outweigh the value of publishing the data. I originally contemplated legislation to make this change, but in subsequent discussions with the County Executive’s staff we agreed to address this issue through a revision to the County’s Open Data Implementation Plan, an executive regulation. The Open Data Act was designed so that questions about the priority and value of datasets as well as privacy concerns could be addressed through the Implementation Plan, and the plan could be amended as needed. We should amend the Plan to resolve this issue.”

Douglas Tallman

About Douglas Tallman

Reporter with 35 years experience throughout Maryland. Reach me at dtallman@mymcmedia.org or via Twitter at @MCM-Doug

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