IPIB cautions over personal email use by gov’t officials

The Iowa Public Information Board approved an advisory opinion in July that encourages government agencies to make public the email addresses officials use to conduct government business.

The action came on a 7-1 vote following several months of back-and-forth discussion over the question of whether non-government email addresses are a public record if government officials use those for their government work.

The issue arose when a Windsor Heights political blogger was unable to obtain the email addresses used by members of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. Those board members use personal email addresses, not state government email addresses.

The executive director of the ethics and campaign board refused to release those addresses, citing past court decisions that permit government to keep certain personal information about government employees confidential.

But the blogger, Laura Belin, author of the Bleeding Heartland blog, and Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, both argued before the IPIB that the email addresses should be public.

Belin told the IPIB that government board members who don’t want to disclose their personal email addresses have the option of creating email addresses for their government work at no cost to them.

Evans said the email addresses at issue are not contained in confidential personnel files.  Both Belin and Evans said it is important for the public to have an easy means of communicating with members of government boards.

In the end, Margaret Johnson, executive director of the IPIB, recommended a compromise advisory opinion that states:

“We would … caution agencies not to withhold personal email address as confidential while continuing to use the personal email addresses regularly to conduct public business.

“Accordingly, the IPIB encourages government agencies to release email addresses that are used regularly as a point of communication of government business and would support legislation that specifically requires the release of the email addresses under these circumstances.”

The only “no” vote on the recommendation came from IPIB member Mary Ungs-Sogaard of Dyersville, who was concerned about the potential for future disagreements over what the word “regularly” means – a concern shared by Megan Tooker, executive director of the state ethics and campaign board.

Also, at the July 19 meeting, the IPIB:

o          Tabled action on whether to bring charges against the City of Jesup for violating the open records law by refusing to make available videotape recorded at city hall as two city council members talked after a workshop on the city budget. The complaint was filed by the city’s fire chief. The city attorney claimed the recording was a “draft” document that is not yet a public record. Johnson disagreed. But IPIB members decided to review the recording themselves before proceeding.

o          Dismissed a complaint against the Fort Madison School District for refusing to release a video of the middle school principal “dressed as a banana and engaged with students in front of the student body at an assembly.” The school attorney said the recording is confidential because it is part of an internal personnel investigation. The IPIB did not address that issue. Instead, the board dismissed the complaint because it was filed after the 60-day deadline that state law sets for filing complaints.

The IPIB’s next meeting will be Aug. 16 at 1 p.m. in the Wallace State Office Building.