The storm over Hillary Clinton’s email passed quickly.
A little thunder, a little lightning and it drifted away, a brief upheaval in a long season of political cloudbursts.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a substantive issue here waiting to be pursued.
Clinton, in case anyone has forgotten, used a personal account for most of her email during her tenure as secretary of state and stored those missives on a private server at her home in New York. She said juggling email accounts would have been an inconvenience. Most of her emails have been turned over to the State Department for review, and Clinton says she wants them released to the public. The others, she says, were personal, dealing with such things as yoga and her daughter’s wedding.
Not everyone will be satisfied by her explanation.
And they shouldn’t be.
Not because Clinton is inherently untrustworthy, though some people think so. The problem is a blurring of the line between public business and private affairs. And the former secretary of state isn’t alone in missing that important distinction.
Many of California’s top officials also use private email accounts to conduct official business.
Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris, state Treasurer John Chiang and state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson are among the officials who told the Associated Press that they at least occasionally use private email on the job.
One exception was new state Controller Betty Yee, who told AP that she conducts all her official business using a state email account.
Brown recently released 113 pages of email correspondence to the Sacramento Bee that, as the paper reported, tended to brief and showed a keen interest in news coverage of his administration. The material didn’t include email to people outside his administration or those deemed to involve the “deliberative process,” which officials often treat as a catch-all exemption to the California Public Records Act.
As a result of litigation pursued by one of Brown’s predecessors, California governors aren’t required to release personal calendars and correspondence.
But most communications sent or received on a city, county or state email system are covered by the California Public Records Act. The state Supreme Court has agreed to determine whether the law extends to emails and other electronic communications involving official business but sent on private accounts. The case involves the city of San Jose.
In a ruling that practically foreshadowed the Clinton dispute, a Santa Clara County judge ruled that such email messages are public, noting that a public agency could block access to public documents simply by storing them on equipment it didn’t own. A state appeals court overturned the ruling, saying the Legislature, not the courts should determine which records are public.
The Legislature needs to draw a clear line here.
If policymakers, especially elected officials, are going to use private email accounts to conduct official business, they should be subject to the California Public Records Act just as government emails, memos and calendars are available for public scrutiny.
The issue here is public business, and the objective needs to be keeping it public in a digital age, not alleviating any potential inconveniences for public officials.