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D.C. Court: Open Records Law Means Public Access to Official ANC Business Even on Private E-Mail Account

dcogcadmin | July 22, 2014

Washington’s “advisory neighborhood commissioners,” just under 300 elected officials who provide community input into government decisions, must allow their private e-mail accounts to be searched for records of officials business. That’s the ruling by Judge Stuart G. Nash of the Superior Court of D.C. in a July 8 opinion in a suit by a requester denied access under the District’s public records law (known as the Freedom of Information Act).

D.C. government attorneys defended ANC 5E commissioner, Dianne Barnes, turning over 1353 pages of her e-mails found on official D.C. government servers but refusing to go any further, telling the court her e-mails on her own account were beyond reach of the open records law. 

The court disagreed, saying “to the extent [she] is acting in her capacity as a Commissioner ofthe NAC, then communications made or received by her would be communications of the ANC irrespective of whether such communications were associated with her personal e-mail account.”

The plaintiff showed his request was not just a fishing expedition, bringing to court an example (obtained elsewhere) of a Barnes e-mail on a personal account transacting official business.

The ruling puts ANC commissioners on a par with D.C. Council members and executive branch officials. The Council agreed early in 2013 to settle litigation by the Open Government Coalition by opening FOIA access to Council Members’ private e-mail accounts.  And D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray in an order in 2012 “strongly discouraged” government employees’ use of private accounts for any work purpose.   Courts nationwide have held that officials in govenment may not shield information from public disclosure simply by storing it on equipment the government does not technically own.

The case is Vining v. D.C., No. 2013 CA 8189.