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FOIA email issue during election campaign draws residents’ concerns

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 23, 2019

 Richard Shetler Jr.

Richard Shetler Jr.

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — Grosse Pointe Woods voters will go to the polls Nov. 5 to vote in the City Council race.

Five candidates are running for the three open seats: incumbents Art Bryant, Michael Koester, and Richard Shetler Jr.; and challengers Kenneth Gafa and Seth A. Winterholler.

While several city issues — public safety, finances, infrastructure and diversity — have been at the forefront of the campaign, another issue has caused concern.

The matter involves Shetler submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to City Hall to garner the names, email addresses and home addresses of residents via water bill and city parks lists. On Aug. 29 the request was processed. After receiving the information, Shetler reportedly used it to email residents about his bid for reelection. The city’s FOIA officer granted the request, but city officials have since said that was an error.

The FOIA provides the public with the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions that protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement. The state or local agency has five business days to respond to a public records request, or it can request an extension of “not more than 10 business days.”

According to residents who have spoken out at recent City Council and committee of the whole, or COW, meetings, Shetler’s emails looked like official city business and the residents were surprised to see it was campaign information from the candidate. Resident Patricia Anstett spoke at the Oct. 7 City Council meeting on the matter.

“I am here tonight because of concerns that I and other residents have about the continued, unauthorized use of our email addresses given by the city to a City Council candidate and used for political mailings,” she said. “The city needs to alert citizens that the email list was compromised, apologize to them and spell out what is being done to ensure this never happens again. It needs to make clear whether the information given to Mr. Shetler was a list of emails alone, or other information such as addresses, age, phone numbers and photos.

“After the candidate, Mr. Richard Shetler Jr., sent me and thousands of other residents an email about his candidacy, the city’s attorney told him he should not be using the list, as it was given to him in error. The attorney said Mr. Shetler told him he would not do it again,” Anstett continued. “Unfortunately, last Friday, Oct. 4, I received yet another email from Mr. Shetler. This one asked for money for his campaign.”

At the same meeting, resident Pam Hedman said she would like to see Shetler “apologize to the residents.”

“There was an unfair advantage of this campaign,” she said. “It is distressing. I would like to see the FOIA request Mr. Shetler gave to the city.”

After a discussion at the Oct. 21 City Council meeting, the council voted 6-0 to send an apology via email to residents explaining the FOIA email mishap and what steps city officials are taking to assure residents that something like this does not happen again. Vicki Granger was absent.

Shetler addresses the issue
The League of Women Voters of Grosse Pointe sponsored a candidate forum Oct. 17 on the council race inside the Grosse Pointe Woods City Council chambers. Residents had the opportunity to ask the candidates questions. One question was directed to Shetler regarding the email controversy, including if he thought what he did was ethical.

“I want to clarify a few things tonight while I’m here. A FOIA request was put in and it was processed fully by the city, first and foremost,” Shetler said. “Secondly, the first time I used the emails that I received legally through a FOIA went out, and at that point in time, then all of a sudden, there was conversation whether or not I should have received them in the first place by the FOIA officer as well as the city attorney. They referenced it as a gray area.     

“Time went by. I sent out a second email. That email did not use the FOIA list,” Shetler said. “I legally obtained the email addresses, but when I was told to stop, I stopped and I stopped immediately.

“Now another email of mine went out. That email was with a separate distribution list that I created in early August, approximately four weeks before the FOIA was even submitted,” Shetler said. “When we talk about these emails, that’s some of the actual data behind it. Seeing the response this has caused, I stopped emails altogether after the third email. I made sure that after what I saw it caused, I would not use them ever again, even with the personal list I had.”

‘I’m sure it will have an effect on the campaign’
When Bryant and Gafa found out Shetler had requested and received the residents’ names and email and home addresses, they both contacted the city about submitting a FOIA request for the same information. On Sept. 3, Gafa sent a FOIA request to City Hall in an attempt to garner the same information Shetler had.

“I heard about it. That’s pretty interesting,” Gafa said he thought. “Let me do the same thing.”

However, he said his FOIA request was denied Sept. 5 and he was told by the FOIA officer that it had been a mistake to give Shetler the information.

“OK. That’s fine,” Gafa said he thought, adding “(Shetler) got a free shot to send out emails. I understand mistakes can happen. I wasn’t going to drop out if he got email addresses.”

Gafa said he thought a letter from the city explaining the situation would have been distributed.

“The city hasn’t addressed it with the citizens,” Gafa said. “This is kind of weird how they’re handling this. How do you gain trust of your citizens again?”

Bryant, who currently serves as mayor pro tem, said that by the time he inquired about it, he was told by the FOIA officer that he could not have the information. Bryant also said he does not remember if he actually filled out a FOIA request or not.

“I didn’t get the list. We knew (Mr.) Shetler had gotten a tremendous advantage. I’m sure it will have an effect on the campaign,” Bryant said. “He had a chance to contact a lot of people with his message.”

Bryant said the city will be working with an outside consultant on future FOIA issues so that these types of issues don’t happen again.

“We do have someone lined up who is very familiar with this part of the law … FOIA rules and regulations,” Bryant said. “I’m glad it’s at least somewhat settled.”