Neighbors’ efforts to block the reopening of a mine in a historic Nevada mining town have unearthed a legal question about whether emails kept by elected officials on their personal devices are public records.
The Comstock Residents Association wants the Nevada Supreme Court to order Lyon County to release communications between county commissioners and Comstock Mining Inc. ahead of a January 2014 decision to allow mining again at Silver City.
The question focuses on whether the public has a right to government information contained on personal electronic devices and in personal email accounts.
Senior Washoe County District Court Judge Steven Kosach rejected the request earlier this year, ruling records on personal devices and accounts are outside the public agency’s under the Nevada Public Records Act.
The judge also found the communications were not official actions. But he acknowledged his ruling “may cause public employees to skirt the provision of the (public records law) by conducting business on their personal devices,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
Barry Smith, director of the Nevada Press Association, said the lower court ruling allows the “electronic version of the old backroom deal.”
“Officials could avoid the open-records law by conducting public business through their private phones and email accounts,” Smith said.
In a brief filed Nov. 7 with the state high court, association attorney Luke Busby said the court’s decision would provide “critical guidance” to public officials about access to public records.
In court filings, Busby noted that then-Commissioner Vida Keller said at the January 2014 commission meeting that she had contacted her colleagues outside the public meeting regarding the land-use change.
“As it turned out, Commissioner Keller and other members of the Lyon County Commissioners used their personal devices or email accounts to conduct official business,” Busby said. “An otherwise public record does not lose public status simply because it was created, received or stored on a personal device or personal account.”
A three-member panel of justices heard oral arguments in the case Sept. 14. It could be several months before a ruling is made.
Silver City is near Virginia City and is part of Nevada’s famed Comstock Lode.