Public Accountability

Gerrie Schipske

The California Supreme Court ruled on March 2, that when a city employee uses a personal account to communicate about the conduct of public business, the writings may be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

This is a long time coming. When the City of San Jose was sued on this issue, I moved forward as a member of the Long Beach City Council to proactively get an ordinance that would require the council and mayor to disclose communications conducted on personal accounts.

As a councilmember, I watched as so much public business took place on text and email and was kept out of the sight of the public with the excuse that what was done on a personal phone or laptop was “personal” and not subject to public disclosure.

The final straw was when it was discovered (in a public records request) that a high ranking City official who was negotiating a major financial transaction of land, had asked for the personal email of a developer so that he could correspond with the developer. This developer wanted the city to buy $14 million worth of “wetlands” and none of the private emails were ever disclosed to the public.

I was publicly derided in April 2013 when I proposed that we pass an ordinance requiring the disclosure of emails by our elected officials. Not one other city councilmember would vote to require the disclosures.

In a bit of déjà vu, let me share with you what I said four years ago:

“Taxpayers deserve to know what their elected officials are doing and who they are communicating with. Playing the game that as long as the communication isn’t on a city phone or computer that no one should see it is insulting to voters who understand that technology makes it possible for instantaneous conversations and that those conversations should be public.”

On March 2, the California Supreme Court said this: “We conclude a city employee’s communications related to the conduct of public business do not cease to be public records just because they were sent or received using a personal account.  Sound public policy supports this result.”

Did I use my personal email to conduct city business? Yes, because people would contact me on my personal email. However, when I answered them I would send a copy to my city email address which meant it could be disclosed as a public record.

It is past time that the mayor and city council and city manager do the right thing and require that any communication about public business conducted on a personal account must be copied and retained in the City’s servers for future disclosure to the public.

After all, it is now the law in California.



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