An attorney for City Manager Tom Barwin said an initial review does not suggest Barwin conducted substantive city business via private email, though critics see issues.
After reviewing more than seven months of messages sent to and from City Manager Tom Barwin’s personal email address, an attorney representing the city manager said there’s no evidence Barwin used the account to conduct city business “in any substantive manner.”
Barwin’s critics, however, point out the search found more than 170 emails that may qualify as public records that were not stored on the city’s server, which is used to respond to records requests.
On Monday, the city released a batch of 390 emails from Barwin’s personal email account. Barwin’s email has been the subject of recent scrutiny, as a recent records request showed the city manager had sent and received messages regarding city issues from a private Gmail address.
Although Barwin said he had forwarded most messages regarding city business to the city’s server, the request turned up several emails that had not been produced in response to earlier records requests. In response to an additional request seeking all public records from Barwin’s private account, Barwin turned over his personal computer and cell phone so an investigation could determine which messages qualified as public records.
On Thursday, paralegal Michael Barfield filed a complaint against the city in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court regarding “systemic and ongoing violations of the Public Records Act.” Barfield had previously made a series of records requests seeking any public records from Barwin’s personal email account. The complaint states that, in earlier communications with City Attorney Robert Fournier, Barwin denied using his personal devices to send messages related to city business.
“FYI, I am not aware of any messages related to city business on any subject on my personal phone or computer,” Barwin wrote in a July 24 email to Fournier. “I will triple check but I just don't do that.”
The Florida Statutes define public records as documents made or received in the process of conducting an agency’s official business.
After reviewing 16,009 of Barwin’s messages from Nov. 22, 2017 to June 30, 2018, the investigation turned up 390 messages that might qualify as public records, according to attorney Lloyd Schwed of the Palm Beach-based Schwed Kahle & Kress law firm. Through the city’s public official liability insurance, Schwed is representing Barwin during the litigation.
Of those messages, 217 were already on the city’s server or had been previously produced in response to records requests, Schwed said. The remaining 173 “relate primarily to informational publications or newsletters from various sources,” Schwed said in a statement.
Schwed framed the findings as exculpatory: More than 97.5% of the emails on Barwin’s account from this period were personal. More than half of the emails that qualified as public records were already public, and the rest were generally related to newsletters that are shared with the community or local organizations. None show that the city manager used his personal email account to conduct meaningful city business, Schwed said.
Barwin’s critics see the emails in a different light. The search turned up nearly 175 messages that may qualify as public records — and that’s just seven months of an investigation that will go back to September 2012. Martin Hyde, a resident who made a June records request that sparked the inquiry into Barwin’s email use, challenged the city’s outlook on the findings.
“So he breaks the rules 40% of the time?” Hyde said. “That's not thrilling.”
In a previous interview, Schwed questioned Barfield’s motives, arguing the litigation against the city was more about recouping legal fees than seeking access to public documents, which the city committed to producing ahead of Barfield’s complaint.
Although Schwed dismissed the emails as benign, Hyde said there’s a genuine public interest in seeing the messages the city manager sent.
In December, in an exchange with former County Administrator John Wesley White, Barwin discussed the difficulties of working with the county on certain issues, including a dispute over the dissolution of the downtown Community Redevelopment Area.
“I am hopeful the new County Administrator, Jonathon (sic) Lewis, will be more willing than his predecessor to work with the city to help craft win-win options for our respective boards, but he is entering the picture at a fiscally challenging time with the BCC defaulting to budget cuts over revenue and equity and community building options,” Barwin wrote. “But such is life in Fl, and city-county relations.”
In May, Barwin used his personal account to correspond with Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Carrie Seidman in advance of a story about the city’s “Done With The Gun” program, a initiative with the Sarasota Police Department in which the city sought to recover and recycle unwanted firearms.
Hyde said messages such as these, when public, help make Barwin’s priorities and relationships clearer for citizens. Even if the emails do not appear nefarious, Hyde believes they highlight the importance of full compliance with open government laws.
“I'm not saying there’s anything in there about bags of money,” Hyde said. “I'm saying there are things in there the public has not only a right to know, but a need to know.”