Thursday, December 29, 2005

Opinions clarify access to officials' e-mail

For journalists and others interested in open access to government records and proceedings, e-mail poses unique obstacles. Two recent developments, one in New Jersey and another in Massachusetts, help clarify this sometimes muddy issue.

In New Jersey, the state's Government Records Council, the agency that oversees the New Jersey Open Public Records Act, has ruled that e-mail messages that discuss government business are public records open to public review -- even if they are on an official's personal computer, the Courier-Post reports. "The definition of a government record is not restricted by the location of the record," the council concluded in a decision earlier this month. The ruling requires the mayor of the borough of Fair Lawn to turn over all borough-related e-mails stored on his personal computer to a citizen who requested them.

In Massachusetts, the district attorney for Middlesex County issued a warning to local officials that careless use of e-mail to discuss town business runs the risk of violating the state Open Meeting Law, according to the Metrowest Daily News. In response to a complaint filed by the Daily News against the school committee for the town of Wayland, the DA cautioned that "members should limit e-mail communications to matters of a purely housekeeping or administrative nature, and should maintain copies of all e-mail communications in a central file."

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