Government e-mails should be public property

By Freedom Newspapers

The Arizona Court of Appeals recently shielded dozens of e-mails written by former Pinal County Manager Stan Griffis from public scrutiny under the theory that taxpayers aren’t entitled to see “personal” notes, even if they are created and stored on government-owned equipment.
The court ruling reveals a defect in state public records law that the Legislature should remove as quickly as possible.

Griffis retired in December 2005 after he became the target of a criminal investigation into whether he misused county funds by buying rifles that he claims were intended for the sheriff’s office, but weren’t requested by the sheriff.

A Valley newspaper requested to see all e-mails from Griffis’ county account for his last two months in office. Pinal County provided about 700 messages, but withheld 120 notes that Griffis says dealt with his plans for a vacation trip to Africa, planning for birthday parties and other “personal” matters.

Griffis sued to keep the e-mails secret. A trial judge disagreed, citing Arizona’s public records law, which says all government records are presumed to be public unless there’s a specific exception.

The appellate court took a different approach, saying paper documents written by government employees are candidates to be public records only if the document deals with the official duties of the employee and the record must be saved for some official purpose.

By that standard, everything from handwritten notes as memory aides to steamy e-mails to love interests can be kept secret, even if they are created while the government employee is at work and using taxpayer-purchased computers, ink and paper.

We recognize that some personal use of e-mail and the Internet has become common in the workplace, similar to use of company telephones to keep in touch with our families and conduct simple activities that otherwise would force us to leave the office in the middle of the day.

But Pinal County’s e-mail policy says clearly employees have no expectation of privacy; their supervisors have the right to read any message they write. In Griffis’ case, Pinal County residents should have the right to see for themselves if their former county manager was handling his personal business appropriately while using resources they provided with their tax dollars.

Legislators across the country need to update their public records laws to include all taxpayer-funded e-mails unless they qualify for a limited set of exemptions.