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E-mail forwarding, open records and local government

By Scott Tibbs, October 10, 2013

When a public e-mail is forwarded, what is and is not subject to public records requests? The Herald-Times carried a story on Sunday about county government elected officials sending their official e-mails to a private email account, raising concerns about transparency.

(The story is behind a pay wall and requires a subscription.)

There is discussion on what is considered public and not, and one county council member indicated that he considers anything to do with official business to be public record and is open to sharing it.

This should actually be rather simple, with no real gray area. Matters relating to official duties should be handled exclusively from the official e-mail account, and everything on an official account (including jokes, forwards and so forth) is subject to public record requests unless it is specifically protected for some reason. (Secure information should not be stored on e-mail anyway.) Matters unrelated to official duties on a private account should not be subject to public records requests.

Monroe County government has allowed county councilors and county commissioners to forward their e-mail to a private account for many years, but that should have never been the case because of the transparency issues involved. The policy should be immediately reversed.

While I understand it is convenient to have everything in one place, it is not that difficult to manage a separate work account and a personal account. I have and use several e-mail accounts for specific things, and it takes very little effort to check all of them. Furthermore, elected officials should be expected to make minor sacrifices for the sake of serving the public.

This should be addressed at the state level as well, with a revision of the open records law. The legislature should make it illegal to have official government e-mails forwarded to a private e-mail account, because the potential for abuse is too high to allow this to continue.