City Attorney Refuses To Release “Inappropriate” Emails. Cites Privacy.

18 Dec
December 18, 2007

One clerical employee has been fired, another forced to resign and four others disciplined after Redding, California investigated "inappropriate conduct in the workplace relating to personal relationships, or inappropriate use of city email containing off-color jokes or sexual humor, or excessive use of city email for private and personal matters unrelated to city business," City Attorney Rick Duvernay said in an article printed by the Redding (CA) Record-Spotlight

Even though Duvernay specifically stated that email was involved in the city’s action involving public officials and even though California has one of the clearest Freedom of Information Act rules, Redding is refusing to release the actual emails to the local newspaper for public scrutiny. 

The Redding Record Searchlight made the request for emails, cell phone bills, expense statements, and reports stemming from the investigation under the California Public Records Act.  Yet, the newspaper reports that the city refused:

Duvernay rejected that request in a letter received Thursday, saying employees and former employees enjoy strong privacy rights under the California Constitution.

Even though the emails were sent via city computers and on city time, they were private and confidential and, therefore, not part of the public record, Duvernay said.

"In the opinion of the city, there is no doubt that constitutional privacy issues are implicated, and damage to reputations and exposure to liability is real and present if the city were to release the information requested," Duvernay wrote in his response to the newspaper’s request.

"And while the city respects the role of the paper and the interest of the public in being informed about the conduct of the city’s business," Duvernay wrote, "we see no value in exposing private emails or investigatory reports or investigatory material concerning persons who have resigned or who have been terminated."

While there is little doubt that the content is of a personal nature, it was also clearly stated in the article that the emails involved public employees using public computers on public time.  Does that make it a public record?

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, was quoted by the newspaper as saying that the city is "making a fundamental mistake in assuming that this information (in the investigation) is confidential or even private."  The public’s right to know outweighs a public employee’s privacy rights when there are charges of substantial misconduct against the worker that turn out to be true, Ewert said.

(Thanks to Kimo Crossman.)

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