Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The public?s got mail


Internet e-mails and their blazing speed are both a curse and a blessing.

High on the list of abuses has been the attempt by government employees to keep e-mails among themselves secret from the public, claiming confidentially or personal privacy.

The courts are catching on to this dodge. E-mails are just as much public business as meetings where public policy and decisions are formed. They are no different than correspondence printed on paper.

Idaho's Supreme Court made that abundantly clear recently by unanimously upholding a lower court ruling that 889 e-mails between Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas and a former employee, Marina Kalani, must be handed over to The Spokesman-Review newspaper.

The prosecutor tried to conceal the e-mails as personal and private. Not so, the high court ruled.

Among those that should take note are members of the Ketchum City Council, who have claimed they've received numerous e-mails on issues favoring or supporting a position—but kept the e-mails and their authors a secret instead of submitting them for the public record.

Henceforth, Ketchum officials will have scant ground to stand on when they attempt to withhold e-mails from the public.

This decision is not only a tool but also an incentive the press and good government groups can use to ferret out underground ways of conducting public business without public knowledge.

The clumsy bureaucrat and politician, however, who use e-mails to conduct romances or book dates with "escort services," should beware. Their electronic trails could end their careers.

The scandal involving the U.S. Department of Justice's alleged hiring and firing of prosecutors for political reasons is slowly being documented by e-mails forced into the open by subpoenas. Cocky political appointees at Justice blithely assumed their electronic exchanges would be kept secret.

However, congressional investigators also discovered to their dismay that some White House political appointees, in fact, found a devious way of conducting public business without fear of e-mails being divulged: They sent e-mails through private electronic accounts owned by the Republican National Committee. Inevitably, public officials who are determined to deceive the public will try to devise new schemes to avoid ethics codes and the law. Some politicians even claim that cozy, private communications among employees is the way government runs more efficiently—without the nosy public.

Idaho's justices rightly had no patience for government secrecy.




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