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Wengay Newton’s Facebook posts may be crossing a line

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Last week, St. Pete City Council member Wengay Newton came under fire for posting a constituent’s personal information on Facebook, including his name, address, phone number and email address.

Matt Sardo sent the email to Newton during the St. Pete City Council meeting in which all but Newton voted to move Pier Park forward as the top-ranked design for a new Pier.

“If you delay the pier and move it to a vote, I will do everything in my power to help a new council member get elected in district seven,” the email read.

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It’s a particularly hollow threat considering Newton is leaving council due to term limits and plans to run for another seat in the Florida House. Regardless, he took the email as a potential threat and posted it as hate mail.

The inclusion of Sardo’s personal information and the allegation that the email posed a personal threat to Newton came with an ABC Action News report and plenty of pushback, prompting Newton to ultimately remove the post from his Facebook page.

But he doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson.

Since the meeting last Thursday, Newton has posted four other emails he received. All contain at least some personal information. All four are also anti-Pier Park.

In the first post, Newton includes the name and address of two St. Pete residents. The email he received asks the rest of council to “approve Mr. Newton’s proposal to hold a special election with the voters in St. Petersburg.

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It was posted on Friday at 4:22 a.m. SaintPetersblog has included screen shots of the posts, but has chosen to redact personal information, which could be used to contact the individuals who sent the emails.

The longest of the four emails came from Greg Geegan. He asks Newton to “do everything you can to stop Pier Park.” Geegan’s email is not a blatant endorsement for Destination St. Pete – he indicated he’d also be happy with Alma – but it was most certainly railing against Pier Park. The email did not contain his home address, but did include his email address.

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The other two posts also contained the email authors’ email addresses.

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Florida’s public records laws do not require addresses and email addresses or even phone numbers to be redacted in a public records request. Only personally identifiable information like social security numbers, banking information and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers are required to be redacted.

So technically, the information Newton posted was all available through public records requests. On that note, he did nothing wrong.

However, just because it’s allowed, doesn’t necessarily make it right.

First of all, consider the medium. A public records request requires a formal request sent to the City Clerk asking for a particular set of information. Once that request is received, the Clerk’s office must then send it off to the appropriate department to obtain the information. It must then be reviewed to ensure there is not any protected information that needs to be redacted before sending the required information back to the person who requested it.

This process takes days, if not weeks, depending on the content requested. For example, this reporter recently requested about three weeks worth of emails sent to and from Pier Selection Committee chair Mike Connors. The request was sent on March 21. It was fulfilled on April 7 after several follow-up emails.

The point: the information Newton posted could have been requested by reporters or anyone in the public, but the number of people who would have requested it would have been comparatively small to a Facebook audience. Newton has 4,731 friends on Facebook.

He also asked that people share the emails. One person shared the most recent post. The same person, Chel Knight, shared all four posts. Knight is an anti-Pier Park advocate who likes to post hate-filled language against those who support Pier Park. In one post she referenced un-seating council member Amy Foster from the “cushy seat you sit your fat ass in.” Foster is the same council member who referred to Pier Park naysayers as “screaming toddlers.”

Consider also that the people most likely to have obtained this information through a public records request are reporters. While it may not be true across the board, most reporters and news agencies would have little to no reason to publish or disseminate email addresses or home addresses from information received through a records request.

However unprofessional or irresponsible Newton’s choice to make that information readily available to anyone may be, again, he did nothing wrong. Email correspondence from an official city email contains the disclosure that such emails and the content therein are subject to public record.

But, no such disclaimer is given when sending an email to City Council. For example, when contacting council through the city’s website, the link to council’s email address simply redirects the user to a new message in whatever default email program they use.

Regardless of right vs. wrong or any presence of disclaimers, City Council Vice Chair Amy Foster said it’s not the judgment she would use.

“People who are sharing very personal stories are not anticipating it to go public,” she said. “In a day and age where there is so much identity theft, it puts people at risk and I wouldn’t want to expose them to that.”

Foster noted that even though email and addresses aren’t considered identifiable information, emails to council members often include where they work or in what career or other clues potential identity thieves could use to access information.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email [email protected]

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