While many towns, counties and school boards across North Carolina provide their elected officials public email accounts, many trustees at the state’s universities and community colleges either don’t have them or don’t use them.
Public email accounts enhance transparency in government. They provide a channel for representatives to communicate with administrators and constituents. They also make it easier for the public to see how decisions are made through requests for email correspondence.
Many North Carolina cities, counties and school boards have long assigned public accounts to their council or board members. State lawmakers are given public email accounts, as are members of high-profile boards such as the state Board of Transportation and the state Board of Education.
But most public universities and community colleges have been slow to set up and promote that channel. Many websites don’t include an email address for each trustee, while others list home or business accounts for trustees.
Only three of the state’s 16 public universities post email contacts on their websites, an N&O review found, while two others provide a link to board of trustee information on the UNC system’s website. N.C. State University and N.C. Central University are among several universities, for example, that give trustees public accounts, but the accounts aren’t listed on the university websites.
UNC-Chapel Hill makes public accounts available to trustees, but most are using their private accounts, which are listed on the university’s website.
At UNC-Greensboro, trustee biographies and personal or work email contacts used to be on the website, said Susan Safran, an eight-year board member and former chairwoman. She learned they had been removed when an N&O reporter contacted her this week. Instead, the university offers the public a general account, email@example.com, which the administration then reviews and distributes emails to individual trustees.
Safran said she wasn’t concerned by the change, and she thinks the university is transparent. But she did want to know why the change was made.
“I’m going to be asking that question: Hey guys, when did this change and what was the rationale?” she said.
Lauren Whitaker, a spokeswoman for the UNC School of the Arts, said the institution does not issue public email accounts. “We considered the option some years ago, and the consensus of the Board members at that time was that it was not necessary,” she said in an email message.
Randall Holcombe, a spokesman for Western Carolina University, said the university has public email accounts for trustees and “plans are in the works” to add them to the website.
When trustees conduct public business on personal accounts, it makes it harder for the public to review that correspondence. Universities and community colleges can’t access those accounts to pull emails without the trustees’ permission, and that can cause problems in record gathering.
“I advocate that government officials keep separate email for their private matters and use a government-owned and archived account for their government business whenever possible,” said Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University. “It’s so much better for public records management and retention.”
Public officials using private email accounts became a hot issue when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted using a private account two years ago. Frayda Bluestein, a UNC School of Government professor and expert on the state’s public records laws, examined the issue of public officials’ use of private email accounts in a 2015 blog post.
She wrote that public officials can get into trouble if they withhold or destroy emails pertaining to public business on their private accounts. Those emails are clearly public record. The problem is how can the members of the public know if the record was withheld or destroyed if they don’t have access to the account.
“Emails sent to private email accounts of citizens or public officials will not be accessible by the official custodian or the public agency unless the sender or the receiver provides copies to the agency,” she wrote.
In September, The News & Observer published a four-part series, “Carolina’s Blind Side,” that was largely based on email correspondence among UNC trustees and members of the UNC Board of Governors as the academic scandal at UNC unraveled. Much of it came from private email accounts; in at least two emails, UNC trustees sent emails to recipients requesting that they not make them public.
Some public accounts
At Durham Tech, there’s no contact information for trustees on its website and no public email accounts set up. Tom Jaynes, a senior vice president, said no one has raised the issue there.
“We would certainly want our trustees to consider the advantages and disadvantages of this idea,” he said.
Wake Tech trustees are using their home or work accounts to do college business, and those accounts are not listed on the college’s website. Wake Tech spokeswoman Laurie Clowers said the college could provide public email accounts to trustees if they requested.
Traci Ashley, a spokeswoman for Johnston Community College, said it is in the process of setting up public email accounts for trustees and expects them to be available by the summer.
Others also have decided to set up public accounts for their members. The UNC system created them for the Board of Governors in late 2015, but it hasn’t listed them on its website, offering the public a centralized firstname.lastname@example.org address. The state community college system says it will have them available for its board later this month.
“We believe having a mechanism for members of the public to communicate with trustees is a best practice, but would defer to the local college to decide the appropriate mechanism for its community,” said Chreatha Alston, a spokeswoman for the community college system.
How to contact
Looking to get in touch with a trustee at a public university or community college? Here are two websites that can help:
Public universities: The UNC system office’s website has a page that allows viewers to select boards of trustees in the Search All Directories box, and then select a school, which then pulls up contact information for trustees. (One caveat -- the information hasn’t been updated for a few years.) http://www.northcarolina.edu/apps/directories/index.htm
Community colleges: The North Carolina Association of Community College Trustees has a webpage that links to contact information for all 57 community colleges. http://ncacct.org/our-colleges/
This is Sunshine Week, when advocates for open government highlight the value of the free flow of information.