Parnell doesn't plan change in records policy

JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell has no immediate plans to change an administration policy that instructs employees to use state email for conducting state business, his spokeswoman said Monday.

The policy was enacted in 2009, shortly after Parnell took over as governor from Sarah Palin. It says that when executive branch employees conduct state business through email, they must use the state system, “whenever feasible.” If employees need to or inadvertently use private email for state business, they are to copy those records to their state accounts. Failure to do so, according to the policy, may result in discipline up to and including dismissal.

Palin and members of her staff sometimes used private email accounts. That led to a lawsuit by activist Andree McLeod, which the Alaska Supreme Court weighed in on Friday.

McLeod sought to establish two legal principles, according to her attorney: that messages sent to and from private email accounts of state employees are subject to public review under public records law, and that state employees should not be using private emails.

The high court, in its ruling, did not forbid use of private email accounts but found that private emails regarding state business are no different from any other records, and subject to retention rules.

John McKay, an Anchorage attorney who specializes in open government cases, said he believes the court didn’t endorse use of private accounts but tried to take a “commonsense” approach. While it may not be practical to ban use of private email accounts or computers, smartphones or other devices, the court made clear that emails are public records, he said.

He said the Parnell administration’s policy is “correct and appropriate,” recognizing that when employees conduct state business, the nature of the account or the device doesn’t matter — it’s still public business.

In satisfying public records requests, people searching for records will need to be reminded that records may exist outside their state files that are still public records and subject to the law, he said.

The Legislature considers its own emails to be confidential and does not have an email retention policy for them, said Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency.

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