Investigative report: Untrackable emails in government

WAVY — Hillary Clinton’s use of personal emails for government business while Secretary of State — is a controversial topic. It’s highly discouraged because any government emails must be saved and produced if you, as a citizen, request them. But a 10 On Your Side investigation uncovered several local officials, and in some cases entire government agencies, list private, non-governmental e-mails as their contact info.

Email policy makers in Virginia and North Carolina strongly discourage the use of private email to conduct public business, because the emails are public records. They are subject to inspection and review under the Freedom of Information Act.

10 On Your Side checked contact information for city councils, planning commissions and county commissioners throughout the region. One of those with a private address listed is Chesapeake Council Member Suzy Kelly.

“I could see possibly where people would be concerned about that,” said Kelly. Kelly has a business in Greenbrier and had listed her company email as her contact info on the city council web page.

When asked why she didn’t list her official city email address, as her colleagues on council did, Kelly said she had problems in the past retrieving messages from the city’s system.  If Kelly would receive an email on her city address, it would auto-forward to her company account. Following her interview with 10 On Your Side, she changed her information and now lists her cityofchesapeake.net address on the city’s website.

“We’ve had several FOIA requests,” Kelly said. “And at every FOIA request I’ve probably been able to provide everything that was required of me.”

Kelly says she keeps all her city correspondence in folders as far back as 2011 – actually longer than the city itself would be required to keep.

“(Official emails) have to be traceable and they have to be reproducible,” Kelly said. “I represent the people. I don’t have anything to hide.”

Public officials using private email is not illegal, but it’s discouraged by those who set policy regarding public records.

A statement from the Library of Virginia says it “strongly encourages all public officials to use official government e-mail accounts for the conduct of public business.”

A section on email guidelines from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources states: “The use of these (personal email) accounts to conduct official government business is strongly discouraged.”

Virginia and North Carolina Policies on Government Officials Using Private Email Accounts

In Elizabeth City, eight city council members plus the mayor get official email accounts when they take office. Of those nine officials, only one council member lists a city email on the city’s webpage.

Elizabeth City Manager Richard Olson says the city explains to council members their duties to keep official emails first at an orientation when they take office, and then again at a three-day seminar known as government school.

Elizabeth City Council Contact Information

Mayor Joseph Peel says he usually conducts city business by phone or face-to-face, but agreed that email is becoming more pervasive.

If a citizen requests emails about official government business, the agency is required to respond promptly, provide the records in a reasonable time, and may charge the citizen for legitimate administrative costs to retrieve the records.

None of the seven members of the Norfolk Planning Commission lists a governmental email address, but that’s actually the city’s policy. “We’ve chosen not to, because we have a lot of different boards and commissions and membership changes frequently,” said Norfolk Chief Information Officer David Sullivan.

Norfolk City Planning Commission Members

Sullivan says he recommends to the planning commissioners that they copy a city staff member whenever they respond by email, so that the message will be saved in the city’s system.

By comparison, Chesapeake’s planning commissioners all list official city email addresses.

Chesapeake City Planning Commission Members

Virginia Beach Council member John Moss lists his government address on the council webpage, but his cox.net address on his specific profile page. Moss tells 10 On Your Side he copies any official emails to the council’s archive email box.

If the public official separates and saves messages involving government business, then records requests are not problematic. However the combination of personal and governmental emails in the same account is at the center of the controversy now surrounding Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state.

Additional resources:

Virginia Beach Councilmember John Moss uses private email

York County Planning Commission

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