Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson has denied allegations she “spied” on city employees through the use of keylogging software, instead saying at Monday’s regularly scheduled city council meeting that “an extra level of security was placed” on computers by Fairhope’s IT department.
Since Wilson’s election as mayor last year, tensions between the Fairhope City Council and the city executive have at times been fraught. The latest meeting of the city council, though, seemed to show a somewhat relieved relationship between Wilson and council members, but there is a wide, new divide between the mayor and a member of the local press, who Wilson called “biased.”
Cliff McCollum, a reporter for The Courier, rose to speak during the time allotted for public comments before the council. McCollum asked the mayor and council to comment on reports published by The Courier alleging Wilson had keylogging spyware installed on the computers of seven city employees, including the finance and human resources directors.
Mayor Wilson said the “monitoring system” is not “spyware,” but a precaution necessary to protect the city.
“This is not spyware. It is a monitoring system, and I did put it in and quoted the policy manual. An extra level of security was placed on those computers because they needed more protection for the city and I explained that in so many words. But this is … can be done at the mayor’s discretion. It was done out of the IT budget — which IT has a budget for that. And I went on the recommendations based on information that was gathered that this needed to be done to protect the city.”
The mayor then went on to criticize the reporter’s integrity.
“So I know that I also said that you know, Cliff, you have been, for lack of a better word, biased in a lot of your coverage since I’ve taken office, and that is your choice to do that, but it’s also my choice to say that it lacks both sides,” Wilson said in the meeting. “I do think it’s unfortunate that you have chosen to do this to the mayor’s office. I don’t see how it’s warranted, and I don’t think that using secret sources is … good reporting.”
In a Facebook post the day before the meeting, Wilson suggested the installed computer monitoring program was meant to help review employee job performance and that the employee handbook given out upon hiring lays out the possibility of being monitored.
“Recent implications of misuse of monitoring ‘spying’ is groundless,” Wilson wrote in that post. “The mayor has the right to protect the city and citizens’ tax dollars from the misuse of city property and disruption from the day-to-day efficiency of running the city. All cities and most businesses have this in place. … The following is from our policy book which every employee receives a copy of before they’re hired: ‘Employees have no personal right of privacy with respect to use of the city’s email system or internet access. The city may review, audit and download email messages that employees send and/or receive and may review employees’ use of the internet.’”
The employee handbook cited by Wilson — and the longer version obtained and reviewed by Lagniappe — covers only “the city’s email system or internet access” in reference to having no expectation of privacy, not use of a computer in general. Programs like SentryPC, the software mentioned in The Courier’s report, track not only email and internet access, but all activities on a computer, including every word typed on the device’s keyboard.
The City Council meeting ended in a closed-door executive session concerning “pending and/or potential litigation” and other matters, another issue that surfaced on the mayor’s Facebook page.
“There are two claims against me and the city and we may receive one more,” Mayor Wilson posted on the social media site. “The cases include falsehoods, exaggerations and are legally without merit. I have instructed the attorneys representing the city to fight these baseless claims. I will not agree to pay one dime of taxpayer money (or money from the city’s insurance company) to anyone for this purpose. To do so would only encourage more of the same in the future.”
A Fairhope employee told Lagniappe these “claims,” both potential and actual, involve Sherry Sullivan, Jennifer Fidler and Pandora Heathcoe, who all work for the city, making allegations — including wrongful termination and assault — against Wilson. The city was notified of at least two of these claims as a matter of necessity; Alabama law requires notification of potential claims against cities before suit is filed.
One relatively new Fairhope resident, Ann Brandt, told Lagniappe this was the first City Council meeting she’d attended. Asked why she’d chosen to come out last Monday, Brandt said it was curiosity … and social media. “I came to see if everything I see on Facebook is true. … Does all of it spill out into the meetings?”
By the end of Monday night, Brandt had her answer.