No Such Thing as

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The world of public records is a fascinating pool of never-ending disputes. After reading about some of the wars raging on the government arena, it's clear why the President is not allowed to text or e-mail. It's too much trouble.

This story focuses on the situation in North Carolina. There, government employees are unhappy with local journalists' efforts to get access to e-mail sent and received by all county and state elected and appointed officials. Why are they upset? Everyone agrees that all e-mail sent and received by government officials is
public records. Well, the people behind the government think the paper should mind its business, because, like any other employee, they have used work e-mail server for personal e-mail.

The issue here is whether those using a government agency's e-mail system should be allowed to decide which e-mail is personal and which concerns government business. Apparently, the North Carolina School of Government advises local governments to do so at their discretion.

The state's Press Association strongly disagrees. They have proof that the honor system doesn't work. A similar e-mail investigation by a local paper has led to the resignation of several top officials from NC's former Governor Easley's office. Lesson learned: employees who have screwed up some major project might take it very personally, but so do the taxpayers who have paid for their mistakes. They would very much like to see that "personal" e-mail as part of public records.

The law states that documents created in the course of doing public business are open for public inspection; it does not define "personal" or "confidential" or specify such records exempt from inclusion in public records. Clearly, if you send the e-mail from a government server, expect it to be subject to public scrutiny. It's simple, really: learn to use your private e-mail account for personal correspondence; it's what's expected from private-sector employees. However, remember that the law also says e-mail related to public affairs sent from private accounts is still a part of public records.

The NC Press association feels that tracking government officials' e-mail has become one of the most effective methods for the public to fully understand the decision process of public officials. The public records law established a process that helps us hold government officials accountable. The issue of "private" email is a giant loophole in that law. In other words, if you are a government employee, remember: your business is our business.

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