TRAVERSE CITY — When it comes to the deets on public officials in the five-county Grand Traverse area, it's a toss-up. Government-issued email? Or personal email?

While there are no hard and fast rules, nearly all county and city employees and elected officials in the Record-Eagle's five-county coverage area that includes Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties use a government-issued email.

But when it comes to those who work in smaller municipalities — village clerks, township treasurers, planning commissioners, trustees and more — contact info consists of a mishmash of government emails, personal emails and no emails at all.

"As far as I know, none of our officials have township emails," said Jim Knight, a trustee from Kalkaska's Bear Lake Township. "We have given our personal email addresses out to people at meetings if they've asked."

One of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's first tasks after taking the oath of office was to issue six directives outlining ethical standards for public officials. The directives are meant to make state government open, transparent and accountable, Whitmer said in a statement.

One — executive directive 2019 - 05 — prohibits state employees from using private email to conduct state business.

Paul Solem is the supervisor of Platte Township in Benzie County, which uses one general email that "filters out the spam and people's rants," he said. Many officials give out their personal emails for residents to contact them, but they are not listed on the website.

Solem has been supervisor for 16 years and believes personal emails should not be subject to Freedom of Information Act laws — even if employees are discussing government business via email.

"That's their personal space," Solem said. "It's not a quorum. It's two guys talking ..."

Enacted in 1977, the Freedom of Information Act is a group of laws meant to guarantee that the public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels in the state. Records are defined as any writing — including emails — that is "prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body in the performance of an official function ..."

Solem also thinks Whitmer's email directive, which is not a law and only applies to state employees, goes too far.

"We've never had an issue with personal email and how we conduct business," he said. "The directive complicates things. It doesn't need to be so complicated."

Benjamin Marentette, Traverse City clerk, disagrees. The city does not have an official policy that requires public employees and elected officials to use a city email.

"But it's something that we strongly encourage," Marentette said. "I believe that everyone universally follows that recommendation."

One reason for using a city-issued email is that it helps make sure all messages regarding government business are kept in one pot and not mixed in with personal messages.

"It keeps those two worlds separated," Marentette said. "It's also a way of communicating to folks that this is an official business item."

It also makes it easier if someone submits a Freedom of Information Act request.

"When we receive a FOIA request we make sure that folks know they need to send every document that pertains to that request, whether that's from their personal or government email," Marentette said.

Doaa Al-Howaishy is an attorney with the Michigan Press Association, which works to promote freedom of the press.

Using personal emails could allow a public official to fight back against having to provide information requested in a FOIA because it is their personal email, she said.

"They should just be using their government account," Al-Howaishy said.

That's why she thinks the governor's directive is a great thing, that it will improve transparency and promote open government.

"It prevents people from conducting government business under the guise of personal business," she said. "We hope that the local governments follow suit."

Michael Selden, director of member services information for the Michigan Townships Association, said emails are free and anybody can sign up for one that could strictly be used for business.

"But there's nothing out there that says you can't use your personal email," Selden said.

In Kalkaska County, some commissioners were having having trouble accessing their county-issued email and so were using their personal emails. The county's servers were recently updated and the problem was fixed, Hill said. All commissioners should now be using their county email.

"I think it's professional and appropriate that if they are communicating on behalf of their position, it should be their government email," Hill said.

There are also viruses and hackers to consider.

"When you're using your personal email and your personal account it opens the door to more opportunities for those who want to hack into government information," Hill said.

That is a danger, Al-Howaishy said, and could put information from the government in the wrong hands.

Tina Sundelius, deputy clerk in Antrim's Banks Township, didn't realize that her personal email was on the township website and planned to have it updated to her government-issued email.

"I don't think we should use our personal emails," Sundelius said. "Things get all convoluted. Our job can be so much a part of who we are, but when it comes to government we have to be careful."

Bear Lake's Knight said the email issue may be something the township needs to look at.

"I'm all for transparency, that's for sure," Knight said.

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