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Are government officials using their personal email account for public business?
Over the many years that I have attended government board meetings in our local communities I have watched as information to members of that public body has changed from type on paper to information on a computer screen, mostly a personal computer of that official.
Often I have wondered to myself, is the information on that computer, including personal information; is it part of the public’s right to know? Can public information be separated from personal information on an elected official’s personal computer?
I believe that all those paper reports and information that used to be laid on the table in front of that elected official is public record and that information is available to the public. But, apparently, if that public information is stored on an elected official’s private computer, it may not be available for public scrutiny.
In a piece written a few months ago by Tom Kamenick, for the Wisconsin Transparency Project: “The ability of officials to use their personal email accounts is an opportunity for mischief. In a society that values transparency and public oversight, it should be unacceptable.”
“In Wisconsin it’s perfectly legal for government officials to use their personal emails to do government work. Even though a government entity may have no ability to access personal accounts and even though it’s ridiculously easy to use personal emails to hide conversations from the public, these practices are still allowed,” Kamenick pointed out.
He continued, “As anybody familiar with the Open Records Law knows, personal email accounts are still subject to the law. Government officials are required to search through personal email accounts and produce any emails related to government work that are responsive to a record request.
“The problem with permitting government work to be done with personal email accounts are myriad. Without central administration, nobody else can track, search or review those emails. The emails may not be backed up in any way. Different email providers will have different retention rules, it’s much easier to accidentally (or intentionally) lose emails.”
Once a government official leaves office, he or she is required to turn all their records over to their successor. I wonder how many times that happens?
Kamenick’s report continues with Trust. “How do you trust that these officials didn’t delete any emails? That they thoroughly searched for responsive emails? There is almost no way to verify that an appropriate search was done and nothing was deleted. All you can do is trust, but trust is often in short supply, particularly when a controversial issue is involved or a citizen is investigating potential misconduct.
“The solution for these problems is simple, obvious, and has little downside. Like some other states and local governments, Wisconsin should prohibit the use of personal email accounts to do government business.”
At the local level, the government body should supply a computer or other electronic devise to government officials and that would at least solve a couple of items like passing old records onto to successors, eliminate having the clerk or other person responsible for filling a record request, looking at official’s personal information, and all email correspondence would be available for public view.
Thanks for reading! ~Carlton