FAC–A new suit filed by the First Amendment Coalition claims that city officials’ emails about government business are public records even though they were sent or received on the officials’ personal email accounts.
The suit, against the city of Auburn and Auburn’s City Council, also challenges the city’s policy–similar to that of many California cities and counties– of deleting most government emails shortly after they are received, regardless of their status under the Public Records Act. The suit was filed June 1 in Placer County Superior Court.
FAC is joined in the case by Victoria Connolly, an Auburn resident and community activist. She and FAC submitted public record requests for emails to and among Auburn Council members dealing with a local ballot initiative to convert Auburn to a “charter city.” The locally controversial ballot issue was defeated in last week’s elections. (The measure was opposed by Ms. Connolly; FAC took no position on the charter city question).
Karl Olson, the attorney representing both FAC and Connolly, said the public has a right to see council members’ emails about Auburn city business. “When city officials discuss or conduct city business, the writings should be open regardless of whose computer they use or what email account they use,” Olson said.
During the period covered by the record requests, the city’s website listed the council members’ personal emails as the addresses to use for communicating with the City Council members on government business.
“It’s undisputed that council members’ emails on government business, when sent from a dot-gov email account, are subject to the Public Records Act,” said FAC executive director Peter Scheer. “If council members could avoid the disclosure law simply by switching to a gmail or similar personal email account, their most important communications would evade public accountability,” Scheer said.
“That’s good for public officials with something to hide, but very bad for voters.”
The suit’s claims regarding Auburn’s policy of deleting emails is based on the city’s “Technical Resources Policy,” which states that email messages are “generally considered ‘transitory’ documents . . ., and therefore not records of the city. . .” Although the policy says that “particularly important emails messages may be official records” and should be retained, it states, “E-mails that are not official records should be retained no more than 30 days” and are subject to automatic deletion after that.
FAC and Connolly contend that Auburn’s policy violates a separate state statute (Government Code Section 34090(d)) requiring that public records be retained for at least two years.-PS
For more information, check out this Auburn Journal article about the litigation: Auburn Journal