As embattled Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick fights to stay in power, members of his staff have undertaken an e-mail campaign to rail against the reporters who have written about his unscrupulous dealings.
The Detroit Free Press reports that several of the mayor’s subordinates are sending out messages from personal e-mail accounts asking supporters to "push back" against perceived unfair news coverage of Kilpatrick.
While the e-mails have apparently been created and sent during the city employees’ non-working hours, the messages supply recipients with contact information that includes the names of city personnel, city phone numbers and city fax machines.
Under criticism that the contact information suggests inappropriate use of taxpayer resources, the mayor’s chief of staff has been dismissive.
"E-mails that originate from personal accounts that are sent to other personal accounts during employees’ nonworking hours fall outside our purview and are not a concern to us," said Kandia Milton, Kilpatrick’s chief of staff.
A growing number of states do not agree with Milton’s blanket assessment, however. In public records law, for instance, states such as Texas and Ohio have found that e-mails composed by a government official on his or her personal account can be public records when the e-mails concern government business.
Michigan public records law relating to e-mail may not yet be as overtly clear, but there is case law that stresses that it is the function and content of a record — as opposed to how and where it was created — that is most significant in finding whether a document is a "public."
Given a moment’s thought, this policy is common sense. Because it is safe to assume that most government employees have personal e-mail accounts, what’s to stop them from simply using their personal accounts when discussing sensitive or embarrassing topics related to public business to circumvent public records law?
While this most recent controversy emanating from Kilpatrick’s administration does not (yet) directly implicate public records law, the statement by the mayor’s chief of staff is another indication of how oblivious the administration appears to be in its responsibility to provide constituents with an open, transparent government.