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District Judge Susan Johnson has ordered the Clark County School Board to turn over e-mails to a citizen watchdog who challenged its public records policy.

In an order distributed Tuesday, Judge Johnson ruled that e-mails created on public servers regarding public business fall within the state’s definition of a public record. Judge Johnson ruled the burden was on the school district to prove that individual e-mails are not public records before denying them to activist Karen Gray.

Ms. Gray filed her lawsuit in June 2007, seeking copies of board members’ e-mails from November 2005 to November 2006. Ms. Gray expressed concern that members might be violating the state’s open meeting law by discussing School Board business in private, said Lee Rowland, an attorney with the ACLU of Nevada, which represented Ms. Gray.

Ms. Rowland praised the order Wednesday, saying the judge ruled “broadly in favor of public disclosure.”

The judge ordered the district to create a “Vaughn index” of e-mails it considers private under Nevada public records law, including “a general description of each document withheld and a justification for its non-disclosure.” The log will be reviewed by the judge.

Judge Johnson also found Ms. Gray is not required to reimburse the district a sum in excess of $4,000 for the scores of hours officials there said it would take to process her request, because her request does not constitute “extraordinary use of personnel” under the meaning of the law.

While the judge did allow further testimony as to the costs, she was properly skeptical of what certainly could look like an attempt by the school district to cool any record-seeker’s ardor by threatening to charge $4,000 to sort a file of e-mails which — as the judge determined — can actually be sifted with a few computer keystrokes and mouse clicks.

Judge Johnson’s ruling quite properly makes full public disclosure the “default setting,” putting the onus on the government agency to explain why it believes any specific e-mails or phone logs should be kept secret. In Judge Susan Johnson, the public’s right to know how its business is being conducted appears to rest in good hands.

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