Roseburg City Council President Tom Ryan has been using a private email address to conduct public city business for several years, a practice that at least one media attorney said flies in the face of the intent of state public records laws.
Attorney and media law expert Jack Orchard said that by using his private email account, Ryan is acting as a private custodian of public records.
“Councilor Ryan is creating a public record by engaging in discussions concerning public business,” Orchard said. “The state law is very clear: he cannot be a private custodian of that information.”
Any emails in which public officials discuss city business is a public record and thereby needs to be accessible to the public, according to state law. Roseburg provides its councilors with city email addresses and iPads for that reason.
“If he followed protocol, he would only discuss city business via a city of Roseburg email,” said city recorder Sheila Cox. “That’s what we advise councilors to do. That’s basically what we preach to them to do.”
Nonetheless, Ryan used his private email address through his personal cell phone to communicate with councilors and city staff.
The issue came to light after The News-Review requested all of the councilor’s emails relating to city business that he sent or received in February this year. Cox said the city could only provide emails from his public account and he would have to provide emails from his private email account.
Ryan subsequently logged into his Yahoo email account at The News-Review office, releasing all emails from his private email address dating back several years without filtering messages containing personal or confidential information.
“I insist now that you take a look at all of them,” he said. “You’re going to get what you want and more than what you want.”
Because Ryan declined to filter messages from his personal email, The News-Review obtained confidential city documents such as city staff evaluations, information that is protected under Oregon public records laws. As a city councilor, anyone can request his emails in which he discusses public business.
Ryan said he prefers using his private email address because he has been using it for several years and more people are familiar with it. He said forwarding those emails to his public email address would be a hassle. Instead, he has his public emails forwarded to his private email address.
Roseburg’s policies do not specifically address local officials’ use of private email addresses, but they do prohibit city staff from having public documents forwarded to “any other outside computer system.”
At one point Ryan advised Councilor Brian Prawitz to keep his personal and public emails separate, his emails show.
“As soon as possible start using your City email for City business otherwise this account could be subject to the Oregon sunshine laws,” he wrote to Prawitz on Nov. 26 last year.
Sunshine laws are regulations that facilitate openness and transparency in government. They require meetings, messages and other official business to be accessible to the public. This week the American Society of News Editors is celebrating Sunshine Week until Saturday.
Most Roseburg councilors use their public email addresses and city-provided iPads to communicate with each other, Ryan’s emails show. City Manager Lance Colley said he does not know of any other councilor who uses a private email address for public business.
Cox said the city cannot compel him to follow city policies.
“You could only teach someone and tell them what they’re supposed to do,” Cox said. “Whether they follow your advice or direction or not, that’s always beyond your control.”
There are means of reprimanding Ryan for not following city protocol, Orchard said. Options that Roseburg could take include cenzure, requesting access to his hard drive, or getting an injunction from a circuit court judge for his emails.
“There’s a variety of things they could do,” Orchard said. “To say they can’t enforce it means they aren’t trying to enforce it.”
Cox said the city will provide a month’s worth of emails from Ryan’s public email address for a cost of $80.54, which will cover an hour of her staff time plus benefits. The request would take two-and-a-half hours to compile, she said, but the city does not charge for the first one-and-a-half hours of staff time.
Ryan said the public records request for his emails “impugned my honesty.”
The issue of public officials using private email addresses and servers for public business received national attention last year, when it became clear that Hillary Clinton had used her family’s private email server to discuss classified information while she was Secretary of State. Ryan did not see a correlation.
“This is Roseburg, not Washington, D.C.,” he said.