June 29, 2007

E-mail leads to Brown Act concerns

San Mataeo Daily Journal Staff Report

The increasing use of e-mail communication between elected and appointed officials might create pitfalls such as the appearance members of the same body are violating the Brown Act by conducting public business in a private arena, according to a new San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report.

The Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, prohibits the majority of a legislative body from gathering at the same time and place to discuss or decide any matter. Violators can be prosecuted or otherwise sanctioned.

The grand jury investigation didn’t turn up proof any San Mateo County officials met inappropriately but stated in its report that electronic communication can create “an appearance of an illegal serial meeting.”

The preponderance of e-mail with attachments also opens the cities and counties to full public disclosure under the Public Records Act, according to the grand jury.

The act, the jury found, can constitute a significant burden on staff time, document copies and legal costs to determine which records apply. Part of the challenge, too, is sorting official business from any personal communication sent from the same e-mail account.

During county budget hearings earlier this week, County Counsel Tom Casey touched on the sometimes-onerous task of responding to a growing number of Freedom of Information Acts from the press and general public.

The jury recommends every city council issue official e-mail accounts to members, adopt policies requiring the use of the accounts for all official business, considering providing accounts to planning commissioners, develop record retention policies and include legal updates on the Brown Act and Public Records Act during mandatory ethics training.

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