A California Supreme Court ruling this month blocks city governments from using new technology as an excuse to hide from the demands of public accountability.
The case was brought by a community activist, Ted Smith, against the city of San Jose after Smith filed a Public Records Act request seeking communications about a proposed downtown development.
The city declined, arguing that – because one or more employees used a personal communication device or personal communication account in conducting business regarding the development – those records would not be reasonably accessible to the city.
But the state’s high court didn’t buy it. Summing up the jurists’ unanimous decision issued March 2, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote, “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.”
“Deciding whether something written in a personal account is public record will require an examination of the content, the purpose for which it was sent, the person to whom it was sent and whether the communication was prepared within the scope of the worker’s job,” Corrigan said the city argued. It added that such broad requests for information from employees could be too expensive and compromise their own privacy.
It’s disappointing that a democratically elected city government would stoop so low in a bid to hide public business from its own constituents.
Karl Olson, an attorney who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the California Newspaper Publishers Association and other journalism organizations, said the court’s ruling sent “a strong message that public officials and employees should not try to evade public scrutiny by using personal accounts or devices.”
The decision does not require searches of employees’ private devices but does require “reasonable efforts” to obtain copies of public business conducted on private email accounts or devices.
The Supreme Court ruling suggests ways of reasonably meeting its requirements, including one modeling the federal requirement of copying government information exchanges into official government records.
Another suggests banning employees’ use of private devices for work-related tasks.
City spokeswoman Carrie Lujan said Santa Clarita is reviewing its policies in light of the court decision to determine if it needs to make any changes to bring its policies in line with the ruling.