WILKES-BARRE, Pa (AP) – Lawyers for Luzerne County and The Citizens’ Voice were back in the courtroom Wednesday, debating the release of emails from ousted Director of Elections Leonard Piazza.
Judge Lesa S. Gelb thought the dispute was resolved at a Nov. 5 hearing. The newspaper wants electronic copies of emails, and assistant county solicitor Michael Butera said Wednesday the county will provide only paper copies.
Michael Cosgrove, the attorney for The Citizens’ Voice, argued the state Right-to-Know Law "is very clear" and requires the release of records in an electronic medium when they exist in that medium and are requested in that medium. Cosgrove said the county is trying to discourage Right-to-Know requests by overwhelming the newspaper with unnecessary amounts of paper and charging excessive fees.
Butera countered that electronically copying an email is creating a new record – something the state law doesn’t require. Gelb seemed skeptical, pondering how producing an electronic copy differed from producing a paper copy.
The county’s information technology director, Steve Englot, testified about the process involved in copying emails. The messages are in a Microsoft Exchange format and could easily be translated into accessible documents and burned onto a compact disc in a "matter of minutes," Englot said.
But Butera said "the conundrum" for the county is "we have to review" all requested emails and set aside ones considered exempt and confidential, calling it a "Herculean task" because The Citizens’ Voice has been "hitting us with a shotgun" with email requests.
The Citizens’ Voice won appeals in July with the state Open Records Office granting access to emails from Piazza and Chief Public Defender Al Flora Jr. The deadline to provide the emails was in August, and the county released hundreds of emails on two discs at no charge in September.
The newspaper filed a petition in court to force the release of additional emails from Flora and Piazza. After the Nov. 5 hearing, the county released the remaining Flora emails on paper.
The Citizens’ Voice accepted 4,020 pages of Flora emails but refused to pay a $1,005 bill. The fee for records on a CD is $5, and the fee for paper records is 25 cents per page, according to the county’s policy.
On Nov. 5, Butera said the county would review more than 20,000 remaining Piazza emails and provide them by Dec. 20.
"How many swings do they get at it?" Cosgrove asked during Wednesday’s hearings.
Butera said the county didn’t review the remaining Piazza emails because the newspaper didn’t want paper copies. Gelb reminded Butera that she had previously upheld the newspaper’s right to the records.
"The ship has sailed on that," she said.
Gelb ordered Butera and Cosgrove to submit legal briefs on the dispute by Feb. 27 and told Butera to complete his review of the emails by the next hearing, March 6.
The Citizens’ Voice filed requests for emails from Piazza and Flora last April after Piazza’s termination and Flora joined a lawsuit against the county alleging gross underfunding of his office.