EDITORIAL: California officials have email issues of their own

A clear line needs to be drawn: When doing the public’s business, California’s public officials should use only their official email accounts.

If they use their private emails for work, there’s too much room for confusion and mischief. The public could be kept in the dark about back-channel conversations because personal messages are not always retained as public records, or subject to disclosure requirements.

As The Sacramento Bee’s Christopher Cadelago reported recently, state law on this issue is unsettled; policy varies by agency, and the Legislature hasn’t clarified what is required. In a case before the state Supreme Court, a lower court ruled that the Public Records Act does not compel the city of San Jose to produce messages from personal devices or to search them for official communications.

Open-government watchdog groups are right to warn that the murky situation is wide open to abuse. It’s clear that some top state officials are using this leeway. The Associated Press asked the top four legislative leaders and top eight statewide elected officers whether they use personal email accounts to conduct government business.

While state Controller Betty Yee said she does not use her private email, Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris occasionally message their staffs using their personal accounts. Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, said he conducts most of his state business on his private email because it is “both practical and convenient,” the Associated Press reported.

Personal convenience — also cited by Hillary Clinton for her use of private email while U.S. secretary of state — isn’t sufficient reason for public officials to skirt the need to be open. Speaking of which, the four Assembly and Senate leaders didn’t respond directly to the Associated Press, a problem in itself.

If office employees everywhere can keep their personal and business emails separate, why should we expect any less from public officials?

To see the importance of public access to emails — and what kinds of message might be going back and forth if officials believe the public will never see them — consider the criminal investigations that evidently involve chummy exchanges among PG&E executives and California Public Utilities Commission officials, including Michael Peevey, who resigned as PUC president.

The PUC supposedly was regulating the utility, but the emails show them cooperating. After the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, PG&E had inappropriate influence in writing the PUC’s safety directive.

Laws and policies must keep up with the digital age. That isn’t happening in California, and that’s not good for keeping our government transparent and holding public officials accountable.