A unanimous California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that government information sent on personal cell phones, computers or other devices by local officials and workers is public information and must be disclosed.
“…we hold that a city employee’s writings about public business are not excluded from CPRA (California Public Records Act) simply because they have been sent, received, or stored in a personal account,” said the opinion written by Associate Justice Carol Corrigan.
The 24-page opinion in the case of the City of San Jose vs. the Superior Court (Smith) also said “…there is no indication the Legislature meant to allow public officials to shield communications about official business simply by directing them through personal accounts.“
“I’m absolutely overjoyed,” said Californians Aware General Counsel and public records expert Terry Francke. The decision “set up all of the arguments made by the city and it’s supporters and one-by-one, knocked them down.”
Francke, Voice of OC public records consultant, said “I think all that’s left for public agencies to do is adopt clear policies on when, if at all” employees and elected officials can use personal servers for government business.
The court’s decision is retroactive so existing government information on the cell phones or laptops of local elected officials and workers now is clearly public record and cannot legally be erased.
In recent years, more and more officials, including those in Orange County, used private devices and servers, making it difficult for members of the public and news reporters to gain accesses to documents and correspondence about public business.
Although the court’s decision has been anticipated for several months, Orange County doesn’t have a plan to immediately implement it, according to county officials.
“…the County of Orange will comply with the ruling and will review its policies and procedures for Public Records Acts requests, ensuring that we continue to provide transparent access to public records,” wrote Carrie Braun, county public information manager, in an email.
The 48-year-old Public Records Act says “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” The act is spelled out in California government code sections 6250 – 6270.5.
Voice of OC reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story. You can contact Tracy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.