By Colman Herman, contributing writer, CommonWealth magazine
Emails dealing with public business sent or received by public officials from their personal email accounts are public records, according to a ruling by the Massachusetts secretary of state.
Frank Bonet, personnel director for Lawrence, asked the city for copies of all emails related to city business that were sent or received by City Councilor Marc Laplante from his personal email account. Bonet tells me that he suspected that Laplante was doing a number on his character in the emails .
When the city failed to respond, Bonet filed an appeal with Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who oversees the Massachusetts Public Records Law.
“You stated that the city has no access or control of Councilor Laplante’s personal email account and thus has no records responsive to Mr. Bonet’s request,” Shawn Williams, Galvin’s supervisor of public records, wrote to Lawrence City Attorney Charles Boddy. “If a town official creates or receives an email record, and that record relates to the work of the individual in his/her official capacity, then the record is considered public and subject to disclosure, regardless of whether it was made or received on a city email account or personal email account.”
Williams ordered the city to search for the records Bonet was seeking and to turn what they find over to him or to claim one of the numerous exemptions available in the public records law. But Bonet claims the city ignored the order. Boddy begs to differ – he claims he told Bonet that the “associated cost would be quite expensive,” but he never heard back from him.
It is not uncommon for public officials to try to hide behind the claim that their personal emails, even when doing the public’s business, are not public records – most notably, Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, and John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate. The Supreme Court of Alaska ruled that Palin had to turn over her personal emails that dealt with the people of Alaska’s business.
The take home: Those seeking public records need to explicitly state that their requests include searching personal email accounts if such accounts have been used to carry out the public’s business.