As former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of a personal email account has recently come under scrutiny, Charlottesville Tomorrow has evaluated the email practices of Charlottesville’s City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.
Two of the 11 elected officials on these bodies advertise personal email addresses on their government website, and neither locality has made it a practice to routinely archive communications from personal email accounts.
“Having a government email address is important from an accountability standpoint because it offers immediate accountability,” said Megan Rhyne, associate director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “It’s a citizen’s right to see what their government is up to.”
Local public bodies are subject to Freedom of Information laws so that government records, even emails sent from a private system, must be made available upon request when they relate to public business.
Rhyne said that even though private email systems are allowed, and there are some officials who could manage it perfectly, most, she believes, are not trained in records management.
“The pure human nature of things — and the way we use email — is that it’s all very immediate and rapid fire,” Rhyne said. “There are bound to be inadvertent mistakes that result in loss of messages and confusion.”
Huja said when email comes to the council’s group email address it is usually forwarded to his personal email address.
Szakos said many emails get sent to both her public and personal email accounts.
“I usually try to answer with my city [account],” Szakos said. “I do save all of my emails that contain city business so if there is a [records] request, I do a search and all my emails are in the same box.”
All members of the Board of Supervisors advertise their government email addresses on the county website. Still, several supervisors said emails related to public business sometimes come to their private accounts.
Supervisor Jane Dittmar said that with every Freedom of Information Act request, she does a complete search of both her county and personal mailboxes.
“I never send emails from my private address that have to do with county business,” she said.
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd said he uses his county address for government business and carefully separates those communications from his business email mailbox.
“It’s rare that people use my business address [for county matters], but [when that happens] I don’t turn it over to the county for safekeeping,” said Boyd.
Ella Jordan, senior clerk for the Board of Supervisors, said the email retention policy is based on the content in the email, such as administrative, fiscal or personnel.
“We have to retain emails, same as paper copies, based on the content of the email according to the Library of Virginia records retention schedule,” she said. “Under our practices, we ask board members to send all documents subject to record retention to me so that I can hold the records.”
Jordan said supervisors are advised of this during their orientation and are reminded whenever they get a request for records.
“If it helped [the City Council] and they wanted the clerk to maintain an archive, we would accommodate them, but there is no policy to that effect,” Brown said.
Rhyne said using personal email accounts makes it difficult to handle records requests in a timely manner and the best practice is to only use a government email address.
“It gives more confidence to the public that they are getting the complete pool of records,” she said.
Rhyne said it makes it easier for someone to intentionally delete something potentially embarrassing or damaging if they use a private account.
Supervisor Brad Sheffield said it takes a vigilant effort to make sure constituents are not contacting officials on anything but their government email.
“I’m pretty aggressive about it. I tell [constituents] to use county email, and if [they don’t], I still respond with my Albemarle address,” said Sheffield. “I have zero tolerance for using private emails in government business.”
Most officials agreed that email can be time consuming, and Huja said the first two hours of his day are spent responding to emails.
“You have to look at all of them because this is information from the public,” Huja said. “Even if you don’t respond to every one of them, you need their information and need to forward it to the right person.”
Rhyne said archiving emails is also important for local government history, and if those are being deleted, or never submitted, you are losing important material.
“These are records that have value far beyond when these people stop being government officials,” she said. “It shows public and future members of government the history of what happened at this period in time. There has to be guidance for city managers to create policies that govern the use of [private] devices and accounts.”