October 12, 2015

Grains of Salt (v2): This Does Not Compute

A little bit of this and that, from Syracuse and Central New York.

Back in July, the administration of Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner blocked the Common Council from using the city's computer systems, because the Councilors did not sign the city's new computer use and access policy.

Is anyone surprised that they're still fighting about this?

The policy, which seems similar to the one that many of us who work in the business world sign, is designed to 'encourage' good computer use, discourage personal use of taxpayer assets, and help ensure that the systems are safe from malicious activity.  For example, it discusses hot-button issues such as:
  • preapproval of software and hardware used on the system
  • protection of trade secrets
  • limited confidentiality (administrators can access what you do)
  • FOIL and legal discoverability
  • passwords are not to be shared and need to be changed regularly
  • non-usage rules (porn, love letters, political campaigns, games, solicitations, streaming websites and the like)
  • access, including only accessing what you're supposed to
  • safeguarding the equipment
  • an anti-retaliation provision
While the policy had been in place since 2013, this year was the first time that folks were asked to formally sign and agree to the policy. They had two months to take the momentous step or face the consequences.

One of the issues with the policy, from the Common Councilor's side, is that it doesn't include any provisions for elected officials - everyone is considered an employee, and subject to the same rules, requirements, and oversight.  And that last word -- oversight --is the one that really has everyone up in arms. Here's what the policy says:
Please be aware that City computer, device, and system activity, including but not limited to files accessed, email, and Internet activity may be monitored at any time.  All personnel are advised that the City possesses and may utilize at any time, activity monitoring software capable of capturing keystrokes and screen shots of a member's computer, device, and system activity. Activity reports may be furnished to the user's Department head. 
What this all means, from the Council's perspective (and the City Clerk's perspective, as he's also a non-signer) is that Mayor Miner can have the city's taxpayer-supported IT Department spy on the taxpayer-elected representatives, preventing them from being able to have confidential conversations with city employees, constituents, attorneys, and the like, or that she will make life miserable for them in some other way, shape or form because - well, because she can.

And so since July when many Councilors refused to sign, we've been watching the legal tab run up while they tried to get things worked out. In September, six of the Councilors announced that they were going to pursue a second lawsuit against the city (the first having been thrown out on a technicality) and are authorizing up to $25,000 on top of the "thousands" they've already spent, and on top of the $7K or so that the City has already spent.

That lawsuit was approved by a 5-4 vote.

Folks, this is ridiculous.

Lots of people chomp at the bit when asked to sign policies like this. But for everyone to have their panties in a knot at the thought that the City can fire Common Councilors who misbehave or misuse city assets is nuts.  Stephanie Miner must know she can't do that. The Councilors know she can't do that. Taxpayers know she can't do that.

Equally, everyone knows that the relationship between Miner's administration and the Council -- heck, with lots of people -- has not always been the best. I have friends who I likely can't even pay to say anything good about her -- so it's also understandable that the Council would want some separation between the two sides, and I agree their should be separation.

Even given that, the fact that they can't get out of each other's way to solve this, after several months, is silly.

More importantly, the inability of the two sides to negotiate something as seemingly simple as this does not bode well for their ability to lead us forward. One possible solution would be to have the City Auditor own monitoring the IT policy as it applies to the Council and any other elected officials, and issue an independent report to taxpayers annually(or as issues arise). To me, that makes more sense than the Council investing you guessed it - taxpayer dollars -- to 'Clintonize' the situation and get their own server. There are likely lots of other ideas out there, if anyone was interested.

All politics is local, they say - and if this is the example our local leaders set, it's no wonder people choose not to vote. If we want that to change, we need situations like this to change. It's time for everyone to get over themselves, solve this problem, and get back to work.