Forsyth County Commissioners approved launching a formal inquiry against one of their own.
At their regular meeting on Thursday, commissioners unanimously approved hiring an outside attorney to perform an internal investigation into whether a commissioner allegedly accessed another's emails without going through the state's Open Records Act. Commissioners did not say who had allegedly accessed the information or the circumstances around obtaining it.
“It's come to my attention that there was potentially some sharing... of access to some email accounts, potentially some other information from one commissioner to another without going through the open records requirements,” said Chairwoman Laura Semanson, “and we would like to get to the bottom of that, understand what that potential breach of information included, how it occurred if it did in fact occur and what was done with that information that was obtained, how it was distributed or used in any particular way whether it were for county purposes or personal or political purposes.”
When obtaining documents through the Open Records Act, certain information must be redacted, like job applications, economic development records and personal information.
Semanson said since the information did not go through that process, none of it was redacted.
“Specifically, it has come to my attention that included in the information that was obtained without the other commissioner's approval or knowledge was a list of citizens' names and email contacts that were provided to the county for a very specific purpose,” Semanson said, “and had they gone through the open records request, that information would have been redacted, so we really need to get an understanding of what the purpose of obtaining that list was and what was done with it afterward.”
County Attorney Ken Jarrard said since he represents all commissioners he would not be allowed to take part in the inquiry due to a conflict of interest.
The board approved up to $20,000 for the investigation.
During the meeting, commissioners also approved a memo for all elected that officials would need to use the act for securing information from emails going forward.
Before taking the vote, Semanson said even if commissioners did not approve the memo “it does not in any way diminish that this is, in fact, the law.”
District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper asked Jarrard whether accessing a commissioner’s email “without that commissioner's consent or knowledge” was against the law.
In response, Jarrard said there were “legal issues raised by that, some of them that I am comfortable talking to you about and some I am not.”
“I will say that this policy speaks to law with respect to getting communications, even if they're public documents, that involve staff members,” he said, “and this is the policy that the county has adhered to and will adhere to in the future.”