David Cox, recently elected to the Raleigh City Council, is drawing criticism from open-government advocates for creating a private email account to conduct city business when he takes office Nov. 30.
Cox, who last month defeated longtime incumbent John Odom in North Raleigh’s District B, announced the creation of the account in a Facebook post.
“I have created a new email address that I will use while serving as Councilor. It is email@example.com,” he wrote.
“The City will likely also provide an official email address. However my understanding is that the City’s email account is open to the public. The Gmail account will be private subject to whatever laws that I must conform to as a Councilor,” the post concluded.
Cox’s post comes amid heightened skepticism of government officials who use private email accounts for public business. A congressional committee recently questioned Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton about her use of email on her private account and server during her tenure as secretary of state.
Cox, a computer scientist, said Tuesday that he’s not familiar with North Carolina’s government transparency laws and would delete the account if it’s illegal. He said he created the account to protect the identity of residents who want to communicate with him privately.
“If someone has a concern about a neighbor or something like that, or they want to bring something to my attention … (the private account) is another method of doing that,” Cox said.
State law allows government officials to conduct government business on personal email accounts but simultaneously attempts to extend the watchful eye of the public into that official’s personal email.
According to state law, all email messages that Cox and other government officials send and receive about government business are public records – regardless of which email account is used.
But transparency advocates say politicians shouldn’t use private email accounts for official business because that makes it harder for the public to keep up with which government emails are being sent or received by an official.
While state law requires government officials to produce all government-related emails in their private accounts when asked, it allows those same government officials to judge which emails are public and which aren’t. So if an elected official doesn’t want to produce an email that qualifies as public, he or she can withhold it without facing immediate legal consequence.
State law doesn’t require government officials to grant the public access to private accounts. And the public has no way of forcing an official to produce emails from a private account except through successful legal action.
Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, said elected officials such as Cox shouldn’t ask their constituents to trust them as an unbiased judge of which private emails merit disclosure.
Governments create email accounts for their elected officials to use so city staff can access them and respond to records requests as quickly and transparently as possible, Jones said.
“This is clearly an attempt to evade that,” Jones said.
Cox said he doesn’t aim to skirt the system.
Unless he’s advised by city staff to delete the account, Cox said he plans to use it while attempting to remain as transparent as possible. Cox added that he plans to respond to all constituent inquiries from his city-issued account and produce all emails about city business if someone requests them.
“If this is deemed inappropriate, I have no problem shutting it down,” he said.
Tom McCormick, Raleigh’s city attorney, declined to comment Tuesday when asked how he’d advise a council member who created such an account “as a direct request for legal advice of that sort can only come from my client,” he said.
Cox’s announcement is unusual, said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which advocates for transparent government.
“I’ve not heard of many, if any, instances at the state or local level where elected officials are setting up private email accounts for the purpose of conducting government business,” Phillips wrote in an email.
It’s also unusual in Raleigh, where council members say the vast majority of their online communications occur in their government-issued email accounts.
“I made a point to tell folks to send (messages) directly to my city email,” said Councilwoman Kay Crowder, who was appointed to the council last year and won her seat in the recent election.
Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said she only occasionally receives council-related emails on her private account. She said she forwards those to city staff or her city account.
Odom advised future council members against using a private account.
“Transparency’s not his rule of thumb, I guess,” Odom said.
“He needs to know that he’ll get a ton of emails,” he added.
On Facebook, meanwhile, Cox received praise.
“Thank you David. You are off to a great start,” one commenter posted.
Another made light of the situation.
“PLEASE!! No email scandals! LOL!” the post reads.
Jones, of the Open Government Coalition, thinks Cox may have already done his constituents a disservice by misleading them about the confidentiality of their emails.
“There’s no expectation of privacy in public records, and written constituent communications with elected officials are clearly public records,” Jones said. Even if Cox is completely honest and fully complies with the law, he’s made public records requests more cumbersome, Jones added.
Cox, for his part, said he didn’t foresee the private account becoming a major problem.
“I’m not running an email server in my house,” Cox said with a laugh. “That’s more trouble than it’s worth.”