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Sarasota city manager surrendering personal devices for independent email examination

Source: The Herald Tribune
By Nicole Rodriguez – Staff Writer

The move comes a week after it was discovered Barwin for years has been using his personal Gmail account to discuss city matters

SARASOTA — City Manager Tom Barwin will surrender his personal cell phone and laptop to the city attorney pending an independent forensic examination of the devices to ensure all stored city-related matters are made public, following recent revelations Barwin has extensively used his private email account to conduct city business.

The move comes a week after it was discovered Barwin for years has been using his personal Gmail account to discuss city matters and may have violated state open records law by failing to comply with numerous public records requests dating back to 2012 by Michael Barfield, a paralegal consultant and president of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union. Barfield has put the city on notice he plans to file a lawsuit alleging Barwin violated his duties to properly store and archive public records and broke the state’s open government, or Sunshine Law, which is intended to guarantee that citizens have access to public records and the decision-making of governmental officials.

“We are in the process of identifying an established independent forensics company (and the associated cost) and we will have the forensics imaging performed as soon as possible,” Lloyd Schwed, a Palm Beach Gardens-based lawyer representing Barwin, wrote Barfield on Wednesday. “Because Mr. Barwin strongly believes in the importance of transparency in performing his duties as city manager and has nothing to hide, he has voluntarily agreed to deliver possession of his personal computer to the city attorney’s office pending the forensic imaging. My goal is to have this forensic imaging accomplished as soon as possible.”

“I trust these measures will resolve any questions or concerns regarding the proper and lawful maintenance and production of ‘public records’ and any pending controversy,” Schwed later added.

Schwed was recently retained by the city for $25,000 to defend Barwin in the anticipated suit by Barfield. Schwed on Tuesday notified Barfield his firm would be combing over Barwin’s devices, but abruptly changed course Wednesday after Barfield demanded an independent forensic examination.

Barfield said he’ll hold off filing suit under one condition.

“I will agree, at present, to defer any legal action, but only if: a) I can have a forensic examiner, at my own expense, be present at and observe any imaging of Mr. Barwin’s electronic devices; and b) that we stipulate to industry standard protocols on how the imaging is conducted,” Barfield responded Wednesday to Schwed.

A public records request made by a former City Commission candidate in June for city-related emails on Barwin’s Gmail account, which was fulfilled last week, revealed at least 500 messages to and from Barwin regarding city matters. The messages included electronic communications from his deputy, the mayor, city spokeswoman, private citizens and media outlets — with responses from Barwin to numerous messages.

Barfield in 2016 made a similar request for Barwin’s personal emails, but was reportedly told the records didn’t exist. Barfield made similar requests in 2012 and 2013, he said. Not complying with Barfield’s previous requests could be a public records violations, City Attorney Robert Fournier told the Herald-Tribune last week.

Meanwhile, Barwin has denied using his private email account to conduct city business and has stressed his commitment to transparency and open government law.

“On occasion, citizens and others have sent emails to my private email address and I have always made it a point to forward those emails to the city of Sarasota email system,” Barwin said at a City Commission meeting Monday. “I intend to be more careful to be sure that any such emails are forwarded to the city’s email system to avoid this situation in the future. And I have taken my personal email address and personal phone number off my Facebook site.”

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