A York Township Commissioners emails on his private account and documents on his personal computer are not public even though they might involve township business, a Commonwealth Court panel ruled. The panel’s interpretation of the state’s Right-To-Know law could compel public officials to use more of their personal emails and computers for official business, according to open records proponents.
“It’s the content of the emails and documents that counts, not the location,” said Melissa Melewsky, counsel with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. “The ruling has the potential to encourage more public officials to use their personal e-mail accounts and computers for official business, if they know the information is not accessible to the public.”
The Commonwealth Court Panel affirmed an opinion from the York County Common Plea Court that information stored an official's personal computer does not fall under the law's definition of a public document because it is not a record of the township's activity.
No law or agency operating rule requires public officials to keep a firewall between their personal and public email accounts and computers. In some instances, local governments have limited access to public systems or email and are even encouraged to use personal accounts for official business.
“In York Township, as is the case with many local governments, the commissioners are actually encouraged to use personal accounts,” Melewsky said.”This ruling will only see that increase.”
She said it was unclear what the ruling could mean on the state legislative of statewide elected level.
“The court’s reasoning was that an elected official does not have the authority to act along on behalf of an agency doesn’t necessarily translate to other levels,” she said. “It’s unclear if that would cover state lawmakers as well or just in those instances when they can make a decision alone on, say, a constituent issue.”