When it was revealed that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used personal email for government business, critics questioned whether she avoided using a government account to give herself more control over what the public sees.
That issue has played out several times at the local level, where a survey of public officials shows they often use personal Gmail or Yahoo! accounts for official business. Sometimes it’s out of convenience. In other instances, officials have turned to private email to make it harder for their communications to become public.
Two years ago, for instance, Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor opened his NetZero email account on his iPad, and began typing an email to a few town residents involved in a dispute with a neighbor.
“Hey all,” Taylor wrote. “I am sending this from my personal e-mail and not my town e-mail in order to protect the privacy of our communication.”
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Taylor then told the residents the town was working to find a resolution between the residents, and encouraged them to speak about their concerns to the Town Board.
At the city of Charlotte, a former Fire Department investigator taped a meeting with her bosses in which they told her to communicate with them by personal email, and the department’s human resources director told her to “delete” any correspondence sent.
The state’s public records law allows for the inspection of email, unless it falls into a few exceptions, such as a personnel issue or an ongoing economic development project.
But the challenge is in ensuring the email is turned over by the public official.
When an email is sent on a city or town email account, it can be possible for the government to pull the email from its computer servers. That’s what the city of Charlotte did when complying with a federal subpoena in the Patrick Cannon corruption investigation. It also mined its servers to comply with public records requests stemming from the former mayor’s arrest.
Cannon, who is serving 44 months in federal prison, had a number of personal email addresses that he sometimes used for city business. When the city turned over documents to the federal governments, those personal email addresses sometimes turned up. But the city had no way to reach Cannon’s own email accounts, so it’s unknown what documents were never seen.
In Clinton’s case, the former secretary of state said she turned over about 30,000 emails to the State Department in December, but she also said she deleted almost 32,000 others.
Interviews with a number of local officials suggest public officials are increasingly relying on government emails, though it’s unclear whether they use them exclusively.
At the city of Charlotte, the 12 elected officials all list a city email on their contact pages, except for at-large council member David Howard, who has a personal email address.
The Observer contacted a number of public officials about their use of personal email.
City Council member Ed Driggs said he often uses his personal email for public business and that he has turned over those emails when responding to a records request. Council member Claire Fallon said she sometimes uses personal email.
School board members Eric Davis and Rhonda Lennon, and City Council member Patsy Kinsey said they never use a personal email for public business.
County commissioner Pat Cotham said residents sometimes contact her about once a week on Facebook, and that some people know her personal email address.
In the Charlotte Fire Department case, two officials appeared to go out of their way to avoid the state’s open records law.
The case involved Crystal Eschert, a former fire investigator who was fired. The city said it was because she made an offensive Facebook post; Eschert claims the city retaliated against her because she had acted as a whistleblower.
After her post surfaced, Eschert was called in for a meeting with two supervisors. Eschert taped the meeting, and the two supervisors urged her to use personal email. The head of the department’s human resources department told her to delete any information she wrote about the case.
The tape prompted City Manager Ron Carlee to send a memo to all city employees reminding them to use their public email accounts – and that city business sent on a personal email account is still a public record.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann said instructing an employee to use personal email for official correspondence is wrong.
Amanda Martin, an attorney with the N.C. Press Association, said the Fire Department officials’ actions on using personal email may violate the spirit of the open records law, but it’s not technically a violation to avoid creating a traceable document.
For instance, it wouldn’t violate the law for an official to discuss business over the phone rather than on email.
In the Matthews case, the mayor said he made a mistake in writing that his use of a personal email would “protect the privacy of our communication.”
He said some residents were in a contentious fight with a Matthews couple about a private road, and the residents were concerned about whether they would have access to the road.
He said he wrote the email on his private account to ease residents’ fears that the feud over the road might escalate if their concerns were made public.
“In hindsight, I shouldn’t have said that,” Taylor said. “But I’m not required to use any account. But if there is a records request, I have to turn it over. And I did that.”
He added: “There was nothing in the email I was nervous about.”
The city of Charlotte has floated the idea of creating a new automated system for retrieving public records, which would be able to mine city servers for documents. But it couldn’t access personal email or text messages.
Assistant City Manager Hyong Yi said the city is having an increasingly difficult time keeping track of the information it creates.
“We do a better job managing paper documents than electronic documents,” Yi said. “Our thinking behind a new public records system is that it would help us manage the terabytes of data that we are generating. We don’t want to hunt down records that we don’t know where they are.” Staff writers Andrew Dunn and David Perlmutt contributed.