Now Saratoga GOP seeks city’s recreation email addresses

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The city’s Republican Committee chair is looking to obtain thousands of residents’ email addresses that were leaked to former elected officials and ended up being used for political purposes.

GOP Chair Michael Brandi said he would not do anything with the list, he only wants to emphasize that the email addresses of thousands of coaches and recreation employees – as well as residents whose children have participated in any city sponsored activity like skating, soccer and summer camp – are public information. And Brandi said he is ready to go to court to prove that Mayor Ron Kim, who said the email list is not subjected to a Freedom of Information Act request, is wrong.

“Ron’s subsequent statements to multiple media outlets were wrong and misleading,” Brandi said. “I made my FOIL to demonstrate the falsity of his statements. Transparency, especially in local government is critical and non-negotiable in my opinion. … An Article 78 proceeding in court is always an option to compel municipal officials to comply with the law when they refuse to. If the FOIL and subsequent appeal are denied, that would certainly be on the table.”

The state Committee on Open Government, however, said access to a city email list is a gray area. Kristen O’Neill, the committee’s assistant executive director, said that the state Appellate-level decision that Brandi cites, Livson vs. Town of Greenburgh, ruled that the town had to disclose its email list because it did not “meet their burden of proof of an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” when it denied Dorrine Livson its email list.

“They leave a little bit of wiggle room for the possibility that another agency might be able to meet its burden of proof,” O’Neill said. “It wasn’t really that they are clearly stating that these listservs must always be public. It’s just that the Town of Greenburgh really didn’t meet their burden of proof.”

She also said that while case law leans toward disclosure, those who are subject to an information breach might feel differently.

“If you sign up for notifications with the town with the expectation that you are giving the town your email for the sole purpose of receiving notifications from them, how would you feel about getting emails from every Tom, Joe and Harry?,” O’Neill said.

The email issue came to light last week when Kim, a Democrat, announced that on Oct. 21, 2020 thousands of email addresses linked to residents who ever took part in city recreation programs were sent to former Mayor Meg Kelly’s personal Gmail account. He said it was important to disclose the breach as it could be a liability issue for the city if it was not made public.

The release, the state Board of Elections said, could also be the subject of an ethics complaint, or, depending on how the email list was obtained, a police investigation.

 Kim said the email list was used for a vote “no” campaign on a 2020 charter change referendum, and later for messages from backers of certain Saratoga Springs City School Board of Education candidates. Kim said he learned of the problem after he received complaints at City Hall.

“We don’t want to expose people’s email addresses and private information,” Kim said last week. “But we had people who came to us and said the email must have come out off your recreation list.”

Kim said Kelly and former Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan, both Democrats, received the list and did not obtain it through a Freedom of Information request – thus he thinks negating any arguments concerning if it is FOILable now, Kim said.

“This is really about people essentially at much higher levels of city government saying, ‘You’ve got to do this or there is going to be consequences,'” Kim said last week, alleging city employees were told they had to hand over the email address list.

On Monday, Madigan acknowledged she received the list from the city Recreation Department because she wanted to rebut a department email that asked residents to show up to an Oct. 20, 2020 City Council meeting to ask the city “not to defund recreation.” But she said she didn’t demand the list, and eventually she insisted the department send out the email for her.

“I had asked for a retraction,” Madigan said. “There was nothing positive about their email…just tell the Commissioner of Finance how you feel. It was not positive. It was pretty intense.”

At the time, the city was facing a $6.8 million shortfall due to the COVID-19 shutdown and recreation was on the chopping block. Madigan said she wrote the rebuttal email and that the Recreation Department did send it out for her. She also said she didn’t threaten anyone to get them to send out the email.

She also said she does not know what Kelly did with the email list or how it got into the hands of Moving Saratoga Forward, the conservative group that promoted “parents rights” school board candidates. She said she never sent the list to anyone.

Kelly, who the Times Union attempted to reach last week and again on Monday, did not respond to requests for comments.

The Committee on Open Government also said that personal email addresses obtained by the city cannot be used to solicit or raise funds. O’Neill also said the city could require a person requesting the information to certify that they will not use it for that purpose. The city could also request that the person requesting the information will not share it with anyone else. If not certified, names and addresses can be withheld, O’Neill said.

As for political emails, if those requesting the information are not fundraising, it could fall into the must disclose category, she said.

Schools, she said, are different as emails are likely considered student records and not subject to disclosure.

“There are all these little factors to take into consideration,” O’Neill said.

Kim said that the city will go to court, if it has to, to defend the privacy of residents who didn’t authorize the disclosure of their contact information for purposes other than participating in the rec program.

“It’s insane,” Kim said about the GOP filing a FOIL for the email address list. “(Republicans) are doing it to prove a point.”

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