So proud of he D.C. Open Government Coalition…what great work, and what a signal victory!

D.C. Councilmembers and staff cannot avoid the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by doing business on personal, rather than government, email accounts, the Council of the District of Columbia agreed today in settling a lawsuit brought by the D.C. Open Government Coalition.

The Council had previously denied the D.C. OGC’s request for government-related emails sent or received by Councilmembers from their personal email accounts. The OGC filed the suit in October challenging the Council’s position that such emails are off-limits to requesters, even if their subject matter concerns official business.

“We commend the Council for taking action to address the problem highlighted by our lawsuit,” said James A. McLaughlin, Co-chair of the OGC’s Legal Committee. “This settlement closes a potential loophole in the District’s public-records law, and it makes Council more transparent and accountable.”

The D.C. FOIA provides the public a right to access records about government activity. In response to D.C. OGC’s request, the Council initially stated that it would provide emails originating from government accounts only, but would not search Councilmembers’ private accounts. The Council has reversed that position in response to the OGC lawsuit.

The settlement states that, in response to a request, the FOIA Officer must take steps to identify and collect emails from a Council employee’s non-governmental accounts “if there is a reasonable basis to believe that some or all of the reasonably described records … are to be found” there.

Going forward, the Council adopted new rules requiring Councilmembers and their staffs to use government email accounts for government business, and if business should occur on personal email, to ensure those messages become government records. This policy mirrors Mayor Vincent Gray’s July policy directing all D.C. employees to use their government email accounts for government business.

FAC Sues City Over Emails…

A new suit filed by the First Amendment Coalition claims that city officials’ emails about government business are public records even though they were sent or received on the officials’ personal email accounts.

The suit, against the city of Auburn and Auburn’s City Council, also challenges the city’s policy–similar to that of many California cities and counties– of deleting most government emails shortly after they are received, regardless of their status under the Public Records Act. The suit was filed June 1 in Placer County Superior Court.

FAC is joined in the case by Victoria Connolly, an Auburn resident and community activist. She and FAC submitted public record requests for emails to and among Auburn Council members dealing with a local ballot initiative to convert Auburn to a “charter city.” The locally controversial ballot issue was defeated in last week’s elections. (The measure was opposed by Ms. Connolly; FAC took no position on the charter city question).

Karl Olson, the attorney representing both FAC and Connolly, said the public has a right to see council members’ emails about Auburn city business. “When city officials discuss or conduct city business, the writings should be open regardless of whose computer they use or what email account they use,” Olson said.

During the period covered by the record requests, the city’s website listed the council members’ personal emails as the addresses to use for communicating with the City Council members on government business.

“It’s undisputed that council members’ emails on government business, when sent from a dot-gov email account, are subject to the Public Records Act,” said FAC executive director Peter Scheer. “If council members could avoid the disclosure law simply by switching to a gmail or similar personal email account, their most important communications would evade public accountability,” Scheer said.

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Tweets and texts and emails, oh my!

Electronic communications — specifically tweets, text and e-mail messages — between city officials discussing public business are subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, even if they were sent from personal cellphones and accounts, a state circuit judge ruled.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt issued an oral ruling Monday ordering the Champaign City Council to turn over all such electronic messages to a local newspaper, The News-Gazette, affirming an earlier opinionissued by the Illinois attorney general’s office.

City Attorney Fred Stavins said officials are deliberating whether to appeal.

“We didn’t think the Freedom of Information Act covered that kind of stuff,” he said. “There is not that much law in that area.”

Last July, News-Gazette reporter Patrick Wade filed a request for all electronic communications, “including cellphone text messages, sent and received by members of the city council and the mayor during city council meetings and study sessions since (and including) May 3.” Wade’s request included messages on city-issued cellphones, e-mail addresses and Twitter accounts, as well as personal ones.

The city disclosed 24 pages of documents — with personal e-mail addresses and phone numbers redacted — and withheld the rest, claiming they were not public records because they were from officials’ personal e-mail accounts and phones.

Wade asked the attorney general’s office to review the city’s decision not to disclose the requested materials in full. The office issued its opinion in November 2011, declaring the city’s actions to be “clearly inconsistent with” the state’s FOIA.