Should public officials be allowed to use private email accounts for government business? That’s become a hot topic nationally in recent weeks, thanks to questions about Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email service.
Civil Beat wanted to find out what Hawaii’s policy is when it comes to public officials and whether they are allowed to use personal email accounts.
It turns out to be a bit of a sticky situation here.
According to the Department of Accounting and General Services, there’s no policy that forbids Hawaii government employees from using personal email accounts – like Gmail or Yahoo! – for official government business. But if a private email account is used for work, those emails can become public records that may need to be saved or potentially released through public records requests.
Civil Beat checked with more than a dozen officials at a number of state agencies and Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office and found that officials generally don’t know what the policy is. And they don’t know whether employees are using personal email for public business or how to go about retrieving those emails if they are.
Hawaii allows public employees to use personal email but those emails are subject to disclosure under the public records law.
That raises questions about what is happening to public records that could be important.
“It strikes me that unless someone were to make a records request, officials business public records could be lost,” said Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.
Cindy McMillan, communications director for Gov. David Ige, says she doesn’t think anyone in the governor’s office uses private email accounts for work. If they are using private accounts, it would be very hard to find out, she said.
Mary Alice Evans, the deputy director for the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said that all of her employees know that they’re not supposed to use private email accounts for work. The only employees who can use private emails are blue-collar workers, like electricians or warehouse workers, she said.
Rod Becker, deputy director of the Department of Budget and Finance, also said he thinks most employees in his department use their government email accounts. But, he added, he didn’t know of any rule that would require employees to save private emails, even if they contained business-related information.
Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, didn’t know the answer when reached by phone. And he said he was too busy to look into it.
Adam LeFebvre, another public information officer with the city, also didn’t know what the policy on email use is. But at least he said he’d check. He hadn’t called back by end of day Friday.
Keith DeMello, a spokesman for the Office of Information Management and Technology, noted that regardless of the state’s policy, it’s the department or the employee’s responsibility to save emails sent or received on private accounts.
And even if the public official is using a government email account, there isn’t a statewide archive system set up to save all of the emails, he said.
In practice, most emails are deleted from the government server after 60 days. This means that unless a government employee printed out the email or saved it somewhere else, it can’t be accessed in the future.
Public employees — except those who work for the Legislature or the Judiciary — are supposed to follow Hawaii General Records Schedule guidelines, said Susan Shaner, an administrator for the Hawaii State Archives. These guidelines outline which documents government employees must save, like meeting minutes or budget records.
Most government employees are supposed to print out the email and file it as a paper record, save it to a computer’s hard drive or copy the email onto a CD or “diskette” if the email contains information specified in the state guidelines, according to a 2002 memorandum from Glen Okimoto, who was the State Comptroller at the time.
The question of what happens to emails after an employee leaves the government is an open one in Hawaii. That’s the controversy that Hillary Clinton sparked when, years after she’d left her position as Secretary of State, it was discovered she’d been using her personal email for most of her electronic messages, including her work at the State Department.
In Hawaii, Black pointed out, that could be a particular problem because the government might not be able to legally access private email accounts even if they had been used for work.
“Nothing leads to those private emails ever being put into state hands,” Black said. “This is not something that I think the current regulations and rules are set up to handle.”
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