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Weld County, Colo., Commissioner Fights To Use Private Email For County Business

Sean Conway has again referenced his intention to sue the county amid an internal dispute over his decision to use a private email address for official business.

by Tyler Silvy, Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.) / August 24, 2017
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(TNS) -- Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway has again referenced his intention to sue the county amid an internal dispute over his decision to use a private email address for official business.

Emails to Conway's public email address began bouncing back Monday, redirecting senders to conwaycommissioner@gmail.com.

Conway's shift to private email could be problematic, according to Monday emails between Conway and Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker. Barker referenced several parts of the Weld County Code, including the following:

» All computer-related information, including email messages, are the property of the county and considered part of the county's records even if the information resides on privately owned devices.

» The county has a right to inspect and review any email or other data stored on county computers and equipment or on privately owned devices if used in the course of county business.

» County officials may inspect and copy email and computer records when there are indications of impropriety by an employee.

Further, Barker said county emails may not be forwarded to employees' personal email accounts, and the county removed the automatic reply Conway set up on his official email account.

"All county business will continue to go to your county email account," Barker said in the email.

Conway objected, strongly.

He said he's not an employee, and he took issue with the word "may" as it related to setting up an internet accessible email account (in this case, a private account).

"I believe that I have a right to receive correspondence in any manner that I deem fit, including a private email address," Conway said in his email.

Conway further takes issue with the county's monitoring of his email, questioning how his private correspondence becomes county property and asserting his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Finally, Conway says the monitoring of his email amounts to retaliation against him for exposing a meeting between county commissioners and Xcel Energy officials.

"This issue appears to be dictated by the desire to continue that surveillance rather than any other appropriate need," Conway said. "Thus I deem this as part of the notice previously given regarding my intention to sue."

Conway's fellow commissioners denied monitoring Conway's emails in a statement sent to The Tribune on Wednesday evening. Commissioners said there has never been any monitoring of Conway's county email apart from one search of all county emails in October to determine who forwarded attorney-client privilege emails to an external email address. That search discovered Conway had forwarded emails between commissioners and the county attorney related to a meeting with Xcel Energy officials.

Conway declined an in-person interview after a Wednesday morning county commissioners meeting, and he did not respond to phone calls or texts seeking comment for this story.

State legislators use private email for work-related correspondence, but county commissioners have typically used their government-provided email address.

In an interview with The Tribune, Barker said he had concerns about compliance with the Colorado Open Records Act, a view shared by Freedom of Information Coalition Executive Director Jeff Roberts.

The shift to behind-the-scenes communication doesn't preclude future open records requests, but it could make those more difficult, Roberts said.

"I think it makes it harder because the public official becomes the custodian of the records," Roberts said. "They have potentially more control over what's released or not. When there's a third party involved, like the county government itself, there's more confidence that you're going to get (the records)."

©2017 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.