Almanac

News - March 6, 2013

Menlo Park: City restores emails to council log

by Sandy Brundage

In the wake of outrage over the deletion of public emails sent to the City Council, the city of Menlo Park has now decided to restore comments sent about a popular gymnastics instructor to the city's public website.

"After reviewing the original postings that were removed and balancing the interests of the employees involved and the public's interest and in consultation with the city attorney, we will be reposting the original emails this afternoon," Assistant City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson announced Friday, March 1.

The emails flooded the council's in-box after parents learned that Michelle Sutton, who taught gymnastics for the city, had been fired.

While an earlier complaint, dated Jan. 30, from a couple who were unhappy with Ms. Sutton's demeanor during an encounter at the gymnastics center remained on the city's website for a week, the city abruptly removed both the complaint and at least a dozen emails of support for Ms. Sutton once parents began writing the council to challenge her termination. According to city staff at the time, the emails left the city vulnerable to a defamation lawsuit and related to a confidential personnel matter.

Many questioned whether the city even had legal standing to delete the emails in the first place. Jim Ewert, media law expert and legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, called the removal "ludicrous," arguing that emails to the council are public records just like comments made during public meetings, which are archived on the city's website.

Even if the emails had conveyed confidential personnel information — which Menlo Park has apparently now decided they didn't — the city can't be held liable for defamation based on comments made by the public in the scope of a public hearing, according to Mr. Ewert.

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