Saturday, June 11, 2011

"NO TAMPERING": Tech glitch altered commission email, city planning director says

Like invisible ink, wrong format causes P&Z Commission email message to vanish

COLUMBIA, 6/11/11  (Beat Byte) --  An unusual technology glitch may be to blame for altering an email that Planning and Zoning Commission member Ann Peters forwarded to other Commissioners through a city staff liaison, Columbia planning director Tim Teddy told the Heart Beat.
The original message contained attached photos, and an extensive text discussion that appeared to have been stripped from the body of the email after staff liaison Denise Clark forwarded it.   A source close to the situation who requested anonymity concluded in a Heart Beat interview that Clark had deliberately altered the email, ostensibly to remove references indicating that other cities have better planning processes, particularly in central, urban districts. 
"The statement that we stripped comments from a May 27 e-mail is inaccurate," Teddy explained.  "Administrative secretary Denise Clark received two e-mail messages from Planning and Zoning Commissioner Ann Peters, each with a request to please forward the e-mail message and its attachments to the Planning and Zoning Commission," he said.  "She did exactly that, without altering the messages or the attachments.  The attachments were e-mails sent earlier to others by [Comprehensive Plan Task Force member] Bonnie Maiers, one on the children's book Where Things Are from Near to Far: A Children's Book About Planning and the other entitled Rethinking the Street Space: Why Street Design Matters."
Missing message

Maiers sent the original message to community leaders including Peters; Columbia Public School superintendent Chris Belcher; School Board member Jonathan Sessions; Columbia Chamber of Commerce director Don Laird; Columbia city manager Mike Matthes; and Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid.  
Peters then asked Clark to forward the message, an excerpt of which is below (with email addresses redacted): 
> From: Ann Peters <>
> Date: May 27, 2011 10:08:56 AM CDT
> To: Denise Clark <>
> Subject: Fwd: ET: Where Things Are, From Near to Far: A Children's Book About Planning / Where Do the Children Play?
> Please email to PZ.   Thanks Denise your the Best!
> Sent from my iPhone
> Begin forwarded message:
>> From: Bonnie Maiers <>
>> Date: May 26, 2011 4:03:46 PM CDT
>> To: Chris Belcher <>,
>> Cc: Mayor Bob McDavid <>, Mike Matthes <> Tim Teddy <>, Mike Hood < > Don Stamper <>, Don Laird <> Shelley Simon <>
>> Subject:  ET: Where Things Are, From Near to Far: A Children's Book About Planning / Where Do the Children Play?
>> Greetings,
>> Earlier this week I sent Chris Belcher and Jonathon Sessions a couple of articles on how children are a crucial part of our city and how we need >> to do "outreach to the kids" for comprehensive planning; how Columbia can be made more child-friendly and how we can make it a city that   >> young people are proud to live in.   Our kids' present and future are defined by where and how they live. And where they learn; where they
>> grow and play and how they get around the city.....
>> Overall, cities are safe and healthy places to raise children, and with better planning can be more so.  To better accommodate people of all ages - >> not just children - central city neighborhoods should have:  adequate parks, streetscaping to improve walking and cycling conditions, affordable >> and diverse housing suitable for families, and address social problems. 
>> Research indicates that urban neighborhoods are far safer and healthier places for children overall due to reductions in traffic accident risk and >> increased physical activity (Lucy 2003; Ewing and Dumbaugh 2009)....
But the message Clark sent did not appear to have been forwarded to Commissioners, only to other city staffers; and all of the information in the body of the email was absent: 
Begin forwarded message:
From: "Denise Clark" <>
Date: May 31, 2011 6:53:37 AM CDT
To: "Denise Clark" <>
Cc: "Matthew Lepke" <>, "Marion Moreau" <>, "Patrick Zenner" <>, "Steve MacIntyre" <>, "Timothy Teddy" <>
Subject: Fwd: ET: Where Things Are, From Near to Far: A Children's Book About Planning / Where Do the Children Play?
Please see attached information from Ann Peters.
Alteration explanation
On receiving the email, Peters was puzzled;  she emailed Clark June 1, asking about the contents and if the message had gone to Commission members.   "I sent both as attachments in the same e-mail so yes," Clark responded.  "If you look at bottom it shows to attachments to the e-mail." 

What happened to the message in the email body was still not clear, and at first, Teddy had no explanation. 

"Denise forwarded exactly what she received," Teddy explained.  "In the original e-mail messages sent out by Bonnie Maiers, the images were embedded in the articles and there was more text.   But we did not alter the specific e-mail messages Denise was asked to forward!   I can't explain how the articles became truncated in transmission to Denise, but they did."
But Clark had not forwarded exactly what she received, so this writer forwarded the emails to Teddy for further examination.  "I think I have the mystery solved," he later responded.   
A formatting glitch involving HTML -- a common web language that accomodates pictures, italics, links, and other information -- and straight text caused the message in the email body to vanish, Teddy explained. 
"The e-mail that Denise forwarded contains the entire article when viewed in plain text," Teddy told the Heart Beat.  "When I switch to HTML, the article gets dropped and only Bonnie's message ending with the book citation appears.  If recipients would switch to plain text view, they should be able to read the entire article." 

(We viewed the message, and the body of the email appears in both formats, the only difference being that in the HTML version, Maiers' narrative appears as an 8-point blue Arial font, while in the text version it appears as 12-point black Arial font.  But systems vary, and other computers/software could certainly have handled it differently).
Teddy concluded with an exclamatory re-emphasis:  "Again, none of us tampered with this!" 

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