- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

DETROIT (AP) - Detroit officials including Mayor Mike Duggan say they sometimes use private email accounts to conduct public business and are defending the practice as convenient and appropriate.

The Detroit Free Press obtained records (https://on.freep.com/1Oh6QbD ) through the Freedom of Information Act showing that Melvin Butch Hollowell, the city’s top lawyer, used his Gmail account and city-issued email account to communicate about negotiations for a pending Riverside Park land deal.

The city’s 2013 email policy prohibits workers from sending, receiving or forwarding “confidential or sensitive City of Detroit data and information through non-city of Detroit email accounts.” The policy lists Gmail as an example of a non-city account.

Hollowell said the Gmail messages, including one that contained a draft of a contract with the Detroit International Bridge Co., didn’t violate the city’s policy because they weren’t sensitive or confidential. Duggan said in an email that Hollowell’s Gmail messages were acceptable.

“If a city employee is authorized to communicate on a subject, and that communication does not involve sensitive or confidential data or information, that employee is encouraged to use all of his/her social media apps, lists and contacts, both personal and city, to engage the public,” Duggan wrote.

“I use the city email system any time I transmit sensitive or confidential city data or information,” Duggan wrote. “When I am not transmitting such data, I use whichever form of electronic communication is most convenient or effective in that instance, including personal email. I comply at all times with state law and city policy.”

Hollowell said he used his Gmail account during the Riverside Park negotiations because he cannot access his work email account from his home computer. Detroit City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on the land deal, which is expected to bring park improvements while giving the owners of the Ambassador Bridge city-owned land that could be used for a planned private bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

The newspaper said it requested interviews with Duggan, Hollowell and Chief Information Officer Beth Niblock to discuss the city’s email policy, but that the mayor’s office asked for all questions in writing and provided written answers from the three officials.

Niblock said she uses a private email account for official business.

Open records experts said the practice is perilous, potentially making it more difficult for the city to access public records stored on employees’ personal email accounts and easier for public officials to delete emails that are subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“It sends a signal to the public that business is being conducted outside the scope of the public records law,” said Michael Reitz, executive vice president of the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy think tank and a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com


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