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Strictly business: County's Internet usage aimed at improving services to residents

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Posted: Friday, February 4, 2005 10:00 pm

Public agencies and private businesses generally allow some personal e-mail communication, but they strictly prohibit anything that can be considered offensive.

"E-mail is really for county business; that's the intent," said Jerry Becker, San Joaquin County's information systems director.

The intent of county e-mail is to improve services to county residents, Becker said.

The issue of using personal e-mail came up this week, when Assistant Sheriff John Drummond was accused of e-mailing dirty jokes to co-workers from his office computer. Drummond was a candidate to succeed Baxter Dunn as county sheriff, but he wasn't named as a finalist for the position.

Public agencies generally forbid sending off-color material, but only the city of Lodi reported that officials routinely monitor employee Internet and e-mail use. Other agencies will inspect e-mail on a complaint basis only.

"We actually do monitor web hits periodically," said Janet Keeter, Lodi's deputy city manager. "If we see there seems to be a pattern, then we report it to the supervisor."

She acknowledged that anyone can accidentally open what appears to be an innocent e-mail, and it's not. As long as the employee closes and deletes the e-mail quickly, no problem, she said. But if it remains open for an hour, that's a whole different thing.

The city's Human Resources Department can monitor how long a particular Web site is open, Keeter said. It can't be monitored by an employees' name, but by the individual computer.

San Joaquin County has a mechanism that blocks pornographic or other inappropriate Web sites from county employees, Becker said.

Most e-mail and Internet policies among public agencies are pretty standard. Prohibited uses include:

• Illegal activities.

• Anything that can be construed as harassment or disparagement of others based on sex, race, sexual orientation, age, religion or political beliefs.

• Sexually explicit messages, cartoons or jokes.

"The employee has no expectation of privacy," said Galt City Clerk Liz Aguire. "That's why (e-mail) should be used for business purposes."

However, some agencies add to what is universally prohibited.

Lodi bans any chain letters, jokes and any fundraising or soliciting not related to city government activities.

In Galt, love letters, unwanted propositions and gossip are banned.

Lodi Memorial Hospital bans e-mail use for any patient information or hospital data.

Most agencies will monitor e-mail or Internet use on a complaint basis only. In San Joaquin County offices, the Information Technology office monitors computer use at a department manager's request. And usually, it involves an employee who spends too much time using the Internet for personal use rather than the actual content itself, Becker said.

"You should not use e-mail to transmit any messages you would not want read by a third party," according to the city of Galt's policy.

E-mails generated by government agencies -- even a dirty joke -- can be construed as a public document that a member of the community has the right to view.

Pat Groff, chief technology information officer for Sacramento County, uses the assumption that e-mails are public documents, but he deferred to the county counsel's office for a more definitive interpretation.

Groff said he doesn't check Sacramento County employees' e-mails or Internet use, but that's not to say it isn't done in some departments.

"There have been people who have been disciplined in the past for inappropriate computer use," Groff said.

Private companies appear to have similar e-mail policies, although they aren't subject to public scrutiny like government agencies are.

"Employees understand that computer equipment is property of the company," said Margie Olsen, human resources director for Building Materials Distributors in Galt.

BMD forbids the forwarding of any jokes -- even clean ones -- plus anything obscene or could be viewed as upsetting to anyone else, Olsen said.

"We really don't have incidents like that," she said.

Bank of Lodi has a similar policy.

"Our e-mail system is property of the bank," said Randy Katsura, risk manager for Banc Shares, a holding company of Placer Sierra Bank/Bank of Lodi. "It is to be used for business purposes only."

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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