Our view: It’s a new world
The city needs to change its email policy to boost government transparency.
A records request revealed that City Council members are using personal email accounts to discuss city business.
A records request filed by Steamboat Today seeking all emails Steamboat City Council members sent to one another about city business over the past eight months revealed a lot about the way our elected officials now communicate with one another.
The sheer volume of emails generated by the request — about 2,000 — shows council members are most definitely using their personal email accounts for city business, and while there’s nothing unlawful about that, it does create a problem when the public, or the press, seeks information.
City Attorney Dan Foote estimated it would take city staff 20 to 30 hours to sift through the council member-to-council member emails to screen out privileged information, and that process would cost the newspaper — or a member of the public, who might request the same information — $900. This is a hefty price to pay for email records, which under Colorado’s Open Records Act, are to be accessible to the public.
We don’t suspect council members are using their personal emails to conduct city business illegally. We realize email has become the preferred and most expedient method of communication, but for the sake of openness and transparency, we also believe the city should change its policies to require council members to use their city emails to communicate with one another when discussing city business.
City emails are archived on the city’s server, and under current city policy, preserved for up to three years as potential records. These emails are easier to search, and the public can be assured all emails are preserved and none are deleted.
The response council members had to the newspaper’s recent records request was also enlightening.
One member was angered by the request, which was surprising, since he should have known, especially in light of recent national and state news headlines pertaining to the use of personal emails by elected officials, that council members’ personal email might be subject to a records request if they were being used to discuss city business with fellow council members.
Two council members readily admitted they often delete emails, which raises questions about preserving public records. Again, we don’t suspect they were getting rid of emails they didn’t want anyone to see, but instead, were simply keeping their inboxes manageable and freeing up storage space on their computers without realizing those emails should have been saved.
Technology continues to evolve and change the way people communicate, and as a result, governments need to be more nimble and routinely review their policies to ensure the public’s business is being conducted openly and transparently regardless of the communication method. And emails have become a valuable public record that must be preserved.
According to Jeff Roberts, head of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, Steamboat city council members’ consistent use of personal emails to communicate about council business raised transparency concerns for him.
“When an elected official uses his or her own personal email, which he or she has control over, they can empty the trash can, or double delete,” Roberts explained. “It’s much harder for the public to get at that email communication or ensure they have been produced for a records request.”
In our opinion, this recent records request was a shot across the bow for city officials. It’s time for the council to review city policy regarding communication between council members and amend it to require that council members should use only the city email system for corresponding electronically or require that they forward any city-related emails they send or receive on a personal email account to their city account.
We’d also like to see Steamboat take it one step further and follow the lead of Colorado cities, such as Loveland and Fort Collins, that are now putting the email communications of their elected officials online for the public to review for free.
By making these changes to city policy, Steamboat city council members would be sending a strong message that they are serious about their stated goal of rebuilding community trust by boosting government transparency.
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