A government watchdog group is criticizing counties that have their legislators use private emails for public business, something Chautauqua County does but may change in the future.
The New York Coalition for Open Government Inc. recently announced that it sent 18 counties a Freedom of Information request to obtain a copy of their policy regarding the use of private email accounts when conducting county business. Chautauqua County was not one of them, although Cattaraugus and Allegany counties were. The other counties sent FOIL requests were Broome, Clinton, Delaware, Franklin, Madison, Nassau, Oswego, Otsego, Rensselaer, Rockland, Seneca, Schenectady, Schoharie, Suffolk, Westchester, and Yates.
According to the coalition, 11 countries provided a copy of their email policy, five countries responded that they do not have an email policy and two countries never responded.
The coalition added that 33% of the counties they reviewed did not post email addresses for elected legislators/supervisors, which did not allow them to determine if elected officials are using a private email account to conduct public business.
According to the coalition, Cattaraugus County reported that it does not have a policy regarding email. Of its 17 county legislators, M. Andrew Burr used @americanwiretie.com and James Joseph Snyder Jr. used @gmail.com, while all others use @cattco.org.
Chautauqua County has 19 legislators. On the county’s website www.chqgov.com, under “legislators” are all 19 legislators. Each legislator has listed a phone number and an email link. None of the email links use @chqgov.com, which all county employees use, including other elected officials, the county executive, sheriff, district attorney and clerk.
In fact, of the 19 legislators in Chautauqua County, 10 use a gmail account, three use windstream, two use netsync, one uses roadrunner, one uses hotmail, one uses yahoo and one uses msn.
The coalition is highly critical of any elected official using private email addresses. “Conducting public business through a private email account is a bad practice as it is important that such communications be archived and preserved as governmental records subject to the Freedom of Information Law,” the coalition wrote in its report. “This report identified six counties where legislators/supervisors are using private email accounts to conduct public business. Every municipality should have a policy in place that prohibits using private email accounts for conducting public business.”
The New York Coalition For Open Government is comprised of journalists, activists, attorneys, educators, news media and concerned citizens who value government transparency and freedom of information laws. Through education and civic engagement, the coalition advocates for open, transparent government and defends citizens’ right to access information from public institutions at the city, county, and state levels.
“We believe that, if government is of the people, by the people and for the people, it should also be open to the people. Government exists to serve its citizens, so access to public information should be simple. New York’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Law make access to public records a right,” the coalition states. “We, the people, can hold our elected officials responsible when government operates openly and honestly. The New York Coalition For Open Government works to ensure that all people have full access to government records and proceedings on the city, county, and state levels. Such access fosters responsive, accountable government, stimulates civic involvement and builds trust in government.”
Paul Wolf serves as the coalition’s president. He acknowledged that many legislators are part-time politicians with other jobs. Still, he said that does not excuse them from using government email accounts.
“It’s important that the work of government be done through government email addresses, as far as archiving and maintaining records for FOIL responses. If someone is using a private email address, it gets a lot more difficult in terms of compliance with FOIL requests,” he said during a Zoom call with various New York media, including The Post-Journal and OBSERVER. “Bottom line, private email addresses shouldn’t be used to conduct public business.”
Overall, the coalition made seven recommendations following its FOIL requests to the 18 counties. They were as follows:
The counties that failed to properly acknowledge our FOIL request timely need to review their FOIL process. (Nassau, Oswego, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Seneca)
Two countries requested that we utilize their form for our FOIL request, which is not in accordance with the law and their practice of doing so should end. (Clinton and Suffolk)
The elected officials identified in this report using a private email account to conduct public business should stop doing so.
Counties that do not post email addresses for elected officials should do so. (Delaware, Madison, Nassau, Schenectady, Schoharie and Westchester)
Counties that do not have an email policy prohibiting the use of private email accounts for conducting public business should implement one. (Cattaraugus, Oswego, Otsego, Seneca)
Counties that have a policy in place prohibiting the use of private email accounts for conducting public business need to enforce their policy. (Clinton, Franklin)
New York State needs to create an entity with the power to monitor compliance with and to enforce the law.
CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY RESPONSE
After the coalition issued its report, The Post-Journal/OBSERVER sent an email to County Executive PJ Wendel, Legislature Chairman Pierre Chagnon and county attorney Stephen Abdella asking if Chautauqua County has a policy regarding legislator emails.
According to Abdella, the county is within its legal rights, allowing lawmakers to use private emails. “There is no legal prohibition against county legislators using private email accounts to conduct public business, but such emails are subject to FOIL like any other email communication related to county business,” he said.
Still, the county may make a change in the future. “I have consulted with Chairman Chagnon and County Executive Wendel, and we agree with the Coalition’s recommendation that the best practice is to establish separate county email accounts for county legislators. I note that there are some logistics with remote email access that will need to be addressed in the implementation,” Abdullah said.
Chautauqua County’s email policy was created in September 2011 and modified in June 2021.
The email policy states it applies to all email system and services owned by Chautauqua County, all email account users/holders at Chautauqua County and all county email records.
The policy states the following activities are deemed inappropriate and are prohibited:
Use of email for illegal or unlawful purposes, including copyright infringement, obscenity, legal, slander, fraud, defamation, plagiarism, harassment, intimidation, forgery, impersonation, soliciting for illegal pyramid schemes, and computer tampering.
Use of email that in any way violates Chautauqua County’s policies, rules or administrative orders.
Sending of unreasonably large email attachments.
Opening email attachments or hyperlinks from unknown or unsigned sources.
Sharing email account passwords with another person or trying to obtain another person’s email account password.
Excessive personal use of Chautauqua County email resources.
According to the adopted email policy, the county has the right to monitor any and all email traffic passing through its email system. In addition, backup copies of email messages may exist, despite end-user deletion, in compliance with Chautauqua County’s records retention policy.
The policy states that if the county discovers or has good reason to suspect activities that do not comply with applicable laws or this policy, mail records may be retrieved and used to document the activity.
“Use extreme caution when communicating confidential or sensitive information via email. Keep in mind that all email messages sent outside of Chautauqua County become the property of the receiver. Any allegations of misuse should be promptly reported to your immediate supervisor. If you receive an offensive email, do not forward, delete or reply to the message. Instead, report it directly to the individual names above,” the policy reads.
According to the policy, Chautauqua County assumes no liability for direct and/or indirect damages arising from the user’s use of Chautauqua County’s email system and services. Users are solely responsible for the content they disseminate.
The current policy does not address legislators’ use of private emails.