- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - About a third of Montana legislative leaders use personal email accounts for government business, a practice that has been criticized on a national level for circumventing public disclosure and threatening security, a newspaper chain reported.

Until 2015, only legislative leaders were offered Montana government email addresses, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported.

Government email accounts are now available to all lawmakers, but some continue to use personal email accounts as their primary or sole legislative email, Lee reported.

A records request released last year showed that Gov. Steve Bullock and several staff members also used personal accounts to conduct some state business.

State policy does not require employees or elected leaders to use government accounts exclusively. Montana does not retain records of emails from personal accounts or other forms of electronic communication such as texting or social media.

Open government advocates and historians argue that electronic communications are public record and should be preserved. They say the use of private email accounts undermines the public’s right to know.

Mike Meloy, attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, said digital communication has become a common way for state leaders to discuss public business.

Such messages, including texts, should be retained and available through public records requests so people can see how their elected leaders reached decisions, he said.

Montana’s email retention guidelines do not mention personal accounts.

Without policies and retention practices in place, the public is “at the mercy of the user” to follow state law in keeping and releasing records, Meloy said.

Lee Newspapers reported that the state was not retaining the emails of key officials and agency administrators when employees leave or change their state jobs.

The Legislative Service Division told lawmakers in November that determining whether an email is public information depends on the information, not the format or where it is stored.

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