Officials in Minn. towns use private email accounts

Published 9:44 pm Sunday, September 6, 2015

ST. CLOUD — While Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account has been under scrutiny, officials in many Minnesota cities use private email accounts to conduct government business.

The practice is legal but it raises questions about public access, accountability and security.

Most large Minnesota cities provide official accounts for mayors and council members. However, for budgetary or convenience reasons, many smaller communities don’t.

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Their officials use their own private accounts instead. In St. Cloud, for example, the mayor and city employees have city email accounts, but council members use private accounts.

A lawyer who specializes in government data, Mark Anfinson, said the practice makes it harder to track those emails, guarantee the public has access to them and ensure that officials aren’t violating open meeting rules.

“The problem has been that it’s very hard to monitor, verify, hold accountable officials who use private equipment for government purposes,” said Mark Anfinson, who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

A growing number of cities use email to distribute information to elected officials, including agendas and meeting dates and times. Email also provides a way for residents to contact and correspond with city staff.

News organizations and citizens sometimes request emails sent to and from public officials to better understand the reasons for a decision or sometimes even to uncover misdeeds.

Under Minnesota law, emails relating to city business are considered government data and are subject to requests for public records. That’s true even if the emails were sent from a private account or a personal computer, Anfinson said.

But using the law to access emails from a private account can be complicated. It’s much easier to retrieve them from a city’s server than if the emails are held by a third party, said Emily Shaw, deputy policy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington. It’s also more difficult to determine whether all requested emails really get turned over, she said.

The League of Minnesota Cities, which provides training to municipal officials on open records and open meeting laws, says that the best option is for each official to have an individual email account provided by the city.

For small cities that don’t, a council member could use a free service like Hotmail for all city business and keep it separate from their other emails, said Jeanette Behr, research manager with the league.