Personal e-mail use common among Charlotte officials

Personal e-mail use common among Charlotte officials

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - Each Charlotte City Council member has an e-mail account connected to the city's computer server.

But the city's elected officials often still use personal e-mail for city business, according to an Observer public records request that covered the month of September last year.

That is not against the law.

But it can make tracking down public documents related to city business more cumbersome.

The state's open records law says that an e-mail from a personal account is still a public document, so long as it relates to public business.

But tracking down personal e-mails can be difficult. It requires a public records request to each individual, and it's up to that person to provide the document.

E-mails from city addresses can be retrieved not only from the person who sends or receives the e-mail, but also from the city's computer servers. When former mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested two years ago, the city fulfilled federal subpoenas by pulling e-mails from its servers.

City Manager Ron Carlee has urged officials to use city e-mail accounts for business.

The Observer asked for personal e-mails from a one-month period, for last September.

Sometimes residents e-mail council member's personal e-mail accounts directly to complain about a problem. In other instances, city officials discussed issues among themselves. Sometimes, secretaries and other assistants e-mailed council members on their personal accounts to set up meetings with attorneys representing developers.

In the e-mails reviewed by the Observer, there didn't appear to be any cases where city officials were deliberately trying to avoid open-records laws.

Three years ago, for instance, Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor sent an e-mail to a few town residents from his NetZero email account on his iPad.

"Hey all," Taylor wrote. "I am sending this from my personal e-mail and not my town e-mail in order to protect the privacy of our communication."