Private email issue arises at Portsmouth City Council

Four members of Portsmouth City Council use a private email

By Frank Lewis -

If a federal government official’s use of their private email to conduct government business hasn’t reached the city of Portsmouth yet, maybe it should.

While the circumstances are far different, the use of private email accounts for city business has to at least throw up a red flag. That has come to be an issue since four members of Portsmouth City Council have chosen to utilize their personal email accounts instead of the city’s email system to conduct city business.

The situation first came to light last week when The Daily Times put in a request with City Clerk Diana Ratliff for a list of the Council members’ email addresses.

“Four of the Council members have gone back to using their personal emails as they found the city’s email not user friendly,” Ratliff said in her response.

Monday night Third Ward Councilman Kevin E. Johnson kicked the conversation off.

“I’m one who chose to go back to my old email address because I was having problems with using the new,” Johnson said. He then posed a question to City Solicitor John Haas.

“Are there any legal ramifications. Am I allowed, as a city councilman, to go back to my former email address as long as I’m willing to open it up to records requests?” Johnson asked.

Haas responded there are two reasons why it is not a good idea.

“I think they can use personal emails but the downside is if there’s a public records request and there is some evidence that they didn’t turn over all of the requested emails, they may end up having a judge or another official going through all of their personal emails,” Haas said. “They may be exposed to having someone going through their personal emails.”

The second issue dealt with the historical aspect, allowing new people in council positions to follow the history of a subject by looking back through that particular ward’s emails from the previous council person.

“They’re (emails) all there in one place, and when they leave office, and a new council member comes in, they can take over that email account and they can look at all the emails from the prior council person,” Haas said.

“I like what Mr. Haas is saying, but what I don’t like is somebody to take all my information from whenever I was a council person and forwarding that on,” Sixth Ward Councilman Tom Lowe said. “I see that as kind of private between me and the individual that contacted me and I wouldn’t want that information to get out or passed forward.”

At the time of Monday’s meeting, Lowe and Fifth Ward Councilman Gene Meadows, were both still utilizing the city’s email.

In a landmark case recently, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of Portsmouth native Adam White in his suit against the Olentangy School District. While the case had many aspects, among them was that five members of the school board were conducting business on their personal email accounts and White challenged that activity resulting in the Supreme Court ruling in his favor.

According to Section 149.43 of the Ohio Revised Code – “Public record” means records kept by any public office, including, but not limited to, state, county, city, village, township, and school district units, and records pertaining to the delivery of educational services by an alternative school in this state kept by the nonprofit or for-profit entity operating the alternative school pursuant to section 3313.533 of the Revised Code.

Portion (C) (1) reads – “If a person allegedly is aggrieved by the failure of a public office or the person responsible for public records to promptly prepare a public record and to make it available to the person for inspection in accordance with division (B) of this section or by any other failure of a public office or the person responsible for public records to comply with an obligation in accordance with division (B) of this section, the person allegedly aggrieved may commence a mandamus action to obtain a judgment that orders the public office or the person responsible for the public record to comply with division (B) of this section, that awards court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees to the person that instituted the mandamus action, and, if applicable, that includes an order fixing statutory damages under division (C)(1) of this section.”

Four members of Portsmouth City Council use a private email

By Frank Lewis

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.