WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - No privacy was violated. No laws were broken. The public's interest was at heart. That's the message from a village mayor tonight about the controversy over Jefferson County's COVID-19 database during the early days of the pandemic.
West Carthage Mayor Scott Burto says he was looking for transparency and only wanted to protect first responders in his community.
"I never had access to the system. I never had personal data or people's addresses," said Burto.
Burto is responding to remarks made last week by county Legislator Jeremiah Maxon.
"We saw in our own county that police officers and government agents were willing to misuse their access to that database so that they could identify their neighbors who have the disease," Maxon said during a county legislature meeting last Tuesday.
That never happened says county Legislature Chair Scott Gray.
"It wasn't like somebody was looking for a particular person that had COVID-19. It wasn't neighbor looking for neighbor," he said. "I can assure the public that the integrity of the system was maintained."
So what did happen back in March during the early days of the pandemic? Well, the county's system of keeping track of where COVID patients live was new.
Burto says someone with legal access to the system saw some confusing information. There were 2 confirmed coronavirus cases, but 4 addresses were flagged. Burto turned to Gray for answers.
"I was not given any of the addresses. I was just told one street name and I made it very clear to Chairman Gray when I reached out to him that I didn't want to know anybody's address," said Burto. "I thought it was a safety issue for first responders and the police departments that service areas that they should have some transparency in data to protect them and to provide them some safety."
We have text messages between Burto and Gray that confirm that. Burto goes on to say he just wants someone to clarify the county's report. That was on March 23.
The next day, Gray sent out an email to county leaders reminding them about privacy laws. He said a village mayor "even knew there are 4 addresses flagged in your system...and went as far as telling me the street one was on."
It also stated, "there were more than 30 searches for the information by a variety of people."
After that, Gray says the ability to search the system for COVID positive addresses was disabled.
"Anytime that we have a broader base of people that can look for that information, it our responsibility to protect that information," said Gray.
Because Burto sought clarity in those early days, another thing changed - the amount of information given to the public. At first, we only knew how many people tested positive for COVID. Now we know how many people are in mandatory and precautionary quarantine.