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Feb. 5, 2023

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Turlay an exception to city of Vancouver’s policy regarding email

City councilor often uses personal email for official business

By , Columbian politics reporter
Published:

City of Vancouver business is routinely conducted on city email accounts, with one reccurring exception: Bill Turlay.

The city councilor often uses his personal email account to communicate with the city council. To be clear, there’s no evidence of malice, conspiracy or wrongdoing on his part, but the practice poses a quandary over city policy and public records.

A 2011 city policy states that messages containing information about city activities, decisions and policies qualify as public records. This includes any messages sent using personal email accounts.

“Therefore, all city-related email should occur from a city email account hosted on a city server,” the policy states.

In concept, the policy is vague. But City Manager Eric Holmes said the city provides council and staff with the resources to ensure the policy is followed and communications are part of the public record. Every city councilor is provided with an iPad computer tablet and a city email address.

Holmes said he was not aware of Turlay’s continued use of private email to communicate with the council and city staff.

“While I have not done any sort of analysis regarding origin and use of email, I am not aware of any circumstance where email communication regarding city business from Councilor Turlay was not captured by the city’s servers,” he said.

Turlay concurred. To his knowledge, his emails should be readily available to anyone interested in making a public records request, he said. But he acknowledged that he doesn’t actively monitor which email account he uses when communicating with the public, council or staff.

“I just hit the computer, and it says OK from here to there and I send it,” Turlay, 82, said.

He said he uses the city-provided iPad for council and personal business because his private computer is easily hacked. Turlay also noted that his computer knowledge is limited and referenced the 19th century when asked about his comfort level with 21st century technology.

“I’m not going to change,” he said. “I’ve got two years left. I’ve got a system here, and it’s worked for me.”

Holmes said the city’s information technology staff dedicates time to teach every employee and council member how to use the equipment as it relates to city policy and provides “the support necessary for people to be able to fulfill that policy.”

He didn’t consider Turlay’s routine email mix-up to be an issue.

“I guess I’m not understanding why you’re so interested,” Holmes told The Columbian. “I don’t control Bill. He is aware of the policy, and just like anyone else in the city, he’s been provided the support and the equipment, and he’s gone through orientation.”

Ethical quandary

The larger issue at hand is the ethical quandary of conducting public business using private accounts, and public disclosure. Perhaps the most prevalent example is that of Hillary Clinton, who was harshly criticized for her use of a private email account while serving as U.S. secretary of state. The negative perception still follows her, even after her bid for president concluded in 2016. Locally, former Clark County Councilor David Madore offers a comparable situation.

Madore routinely encouraged constituents to reach him on either his private cellphone or personal Facebook page. Due to Madore’s predilection toward using his personal cellphone for council business, Clark County faced multiple lawsuits concerning his communications.

Ultimately, a Superior Court judge ruled — after Madore left office — that the county violated the public records act and mishandled the dispute. The county was fined $15,750.

Much of this stems from a 2015 state Supreme Court case, Nissen v. Pierce County, which states that communications made by elected officials on personal devices are public records if the content relates to public business.

Between Jan. 1 and April 15, Turlay has initiated at least 13 conversations with council members using his personal email. In the same length of time, he’s initiated 47 email conversations. This roughly translates to about 27 percent of emails sent this year were from his personal account.

It’s not clear which email account is used in some cases due to the way the city archives messages. In many instances, only names are displayed in lieu of email addresses, meaning it’s possible the personal-to-private ratio is higher.

If someone were to seek Turlay’s emails as part of a public records request, the onus is on him to search his personal account and disclose any relevant emails.

Holmes said he isn’t concerned.

“I have confidence that they all endeavor to the best of their ability to comply with the policy and be good stewards of public records,” Holmes said. “I have no question about that.”

Turlay added that he’s not trying to be evasive or work outside the rules.

“This is just a simple thing for a simple guy to communicate ideas that may be of value to the community and to the city,” he said.

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Columbian politics reporter