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Published: Tuesday, 5/8/2007

Records law needs e-update

OHIO'S open-records laws used to be some of the most progressive in the nation, but they have been severely outdated by the explosive revolution in electronic communications. The same goes for the federal government, where the Bush Administration recently admitted that its political operatives, including senior presidential adviser Karl Rove, used a private e-mail system to discuss public business.

In both arenas, it is imperative that statutes governing public records and their retention be rewritten to take into account the massive increase in use of computers and personal digital devices by public officials to interact with public or private individuals. Otherwise, the public will be increasingly left in the dark as to how public officials conduct the public's business via e-mails, text messaging, and instant messages, and the potential for corruption will only grow exponentially.

At the federal level, the use - and misuse - of e-mail to sidestep records laws became an issue when, in the investigation of the ouster of eight U.S. attorneys, it was revealed that White House political staff members sometimes use mail accounts as well as laptops and Blackberrys supplied by the Republican National Committee for official business instead of government accounts and equipment.

After the White House said a whole raft of those e-mail messages had been deleted, a top Democrat replied that such an excuse was, in the Internet age, the absurd equivalent of claiming "my dog ate my homework."

At the state level, reporters for the Columbus Dispatch exposed a whole new range of possibilities for electronic shenanigans when they asked to review e-mail messages between elected officials and their staff members on two days in March.

What they found were expressions of panic on the part of some officials that their Blackberry communications could be considered public record and inconsistent policies on electronic messages and the length of time they are being retained by public offices.

"Rules and regulations have not caught up with technology," the Dispatch said, "generating questions never asked before: Is the public entitled to see communications from a personal digital assistant, such as a Blackberry message from the speaker of the House about a particular bill?

"What about text or instant messages, say, from a lobbyist in the back of the room to a committee chairman considering a key vote?"

These are excellent questions that can and should be addressed by the General Assembly, even though some in state government might be uncomfortable knowing that the information they exchange with others inside and outside the Statehouse might become a matter of public record.

Copies of e-mail to and from officials of the Taft Administration figured prominently in The Blade's investigation of the Coingate scandal and ethics violations in 2005 and 2006. Still, some state offices routinely purge their computers of electronic messages after just 30 days.

We believe, as does Attorney General Marc Dann, that use of either public or private e-mail accounts by officials should be covered under laws requiring records to be public. Lawmakers should not use this occasion, when the laws need to be clarified and beefed up, to water down those statutes as they have in the past.

Electronic communications to and from public officials and their staff members should be considered a matter of public record, just as they would if they were on a piece of paper.



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