With the State Department’s release the first batch of emails from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private email address, a controversy that has dogged the Democratic presidential nominee since February, public officials across the nation have examined their own policies when it comes to using personal email to conduct public business.
Emails are used everywhere. They have become an essential part of the working world, a cornerstone of communication.
In smaller cities and towns, where personal relationships are more common among public officials who sometimes have known each other since grade school, the Clinton email controversy raises it own issues.
Sunshine and transparency
For many Florida cities and towns, the Government in the Sunshine Law is the lay of the land – many institutions simply use that as their main policy, perhaps combined with a disclaimer added to all work emails stating that any conversations will be part of public record.
The threat of anything being public record seems to many officials strong enough to discourage people improperly using email accounts.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said a big part of the reason people use private email addresses is because it’s convenient.
“I’ve had legislators ask me if I can use their personal email address,” she said, “Because it’s convenient. It’s not against the law in Florida to use a private email address for work. But what they must be aware of is, those emails are public record. They are subject to disclosure and retention requirements. They can’t just delete personal emails that relate to work.”
The Polk County Commission takes email seriously. Their email handbook states that personal email use is forbidden except when it is “incidental, occasional and pre-approved by the supervisor,” and only during break periods.
Messages are also supposed to be brief, not use any offensive language and not contain any attachments. For the less technologically-inclined, the manual also warns not to download attachments in emails which could potentially contain viruses.
Ed Wolfe, IT director for the county since 1998, is very clear when it comes to any electronic messages made by public officials: it all goes in the record.
“We do a pretty doggone good job of capturing emails for public records purposes,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe and his staff have been working on an updated manual for use of any electronic device by all county staff since November 2014. The county commission is expected to approve it within 30 days. Our current policy has been on our books for years. Our email system is intended for business use only. We do not allow nor do we want employees using personal email for county business and we have instructed employees about that. There really is no reason for county employees to use a person account,” Wolfe said.
The new “30-page Technology Resources Acceptable Use Policy” states “email is intended for BOCC business correspondence only. Email is an official form of communication to support and service the BOCC. The employee’s supervisor or division director must preapprove and will be responsible for their employee’s personal use of the county email system.”
Officials in Lake Wales are extremely vigilant about staying true to transparency rules. They immediately send any private emails about work to the city clerk.
“Everything is done on my work email,” Lake Wales Mayor Eugene Fultz said. “Even my phone is hooked up to my work email, so if I get a text about work, I forward it to the city clerk immediately.”
Commissioner Jonathan Thornhill is well connected and up to date with modern technology – everything he does for the city is on his phone.
“I have meetings on a calendar on my phone, and everything is sent to my personal email as well as my city one,” he said. “City business is all on my city email.”
At the Polk County School Board, any emails sent while at work are subjected to the “broad” public records law, says Polk County School Board public records server analyst Ann Marshall.
“If we get a request for emails that don’t have private student information in them, they can be released at any time if someone makes a request for them,” Marshall said.
Marshall said they have “never had a problem” with violating the state’s Sunshine laws.
Sarah Adelt, city clerk in Frostproof, said there would be “disciplinary action” against anyone who used a private email to talk about city business.
“They’re not allowed to use private emails at work,” she said, noting that the city has not had any problems with that in the past.
Melissa Newman, the city clerk in Fort Meade, said the city has no policy against using a private email, but city employees “just use their work emails.”
Newman said that “nothing is private” at city hall – everyone has a work email and a work phone, and no city employee should have an expectation of privacy while doing business for the city.
No email laws
Many smaller cities and towns have never had cause to enforce a strict “no private email” policy because no scandal has ever happened that demanded such a policy be made, Petersen said.
Petersen said many very small towns simply may not have the resources to use a city government email system, so instead, they just use personal emails.
At Bartow’s city hall, City Manager George Long said there is no direct rule that employees had to use work-based emails to talk about work – but that many employees do anyway just out of convenience and because it makes sense.
Long said the city requires any emails relating to city business, no matter where they were received, to be made public.
“The bottom line is, if someone receives a private email about work, they have an obligation to make it available as a public record,” he said.
“Any emails between city officials are in our system,” he said. “When an email originates in our system, it is retained as part of our city system.”
Bartow City Commissioner James Clements said he has a gmail account as well as an official work email, and he has them connected so that any email he receives at work goes straight to his personal email as well.
“I do not send or receive email from my fellow commissioners,” he said. “If we have emails sent to us that other commissioners might need to see, we send them to the city clerk and ask her to forward them. I have always assumed that this is legal. I rarely do it but other commissioners do it regularly.”
Petersen said an easy option for those who use personal emails, to ensure that their emails are part of the system should a records request be made in the future, is to CC the city clerk in any email they send from a personal account.
That way, she said, the email would come up if it was needed after a public records request was made.
Julio Acevedo, the human resources and migrant services manager at Lake Wales Charter Schools, said the school system has no real system forcing employees not to use personal emails. Many staff members, he said, simply have two emails and use both of them.
Jennifer Nanek, City Clerk in Lake Wales, said employees of the city are “not supposed to” use private emails to discuss work-related matters.
“If they do use a personal email, only God and AOL will probably know,” she said.
In terms of where she sees emails going in the future, Petersen said she thinks the presence of people like Clinton and Jeb Bush’s public email fiascoes will “bring a lot more attention, and there will be policy changes.”
However, she doesn’t think those changes have to be drastic – instead, she thinks it’s a matter of education and clarity, without any vagueness or gray area as to what is allowed.
“This kind of controversy makes government officials sit up and pay attention,” she said. “It’s not just emails – it’s texts, it’s social media. They need to develop policy. It’s about education, training and rules about saving and retaining emails. They have to be aware. Ignorance is no excuse.”
Kevin Brady contributed to this story.
Original article here.