Lack of email addresses limits access to Grover Beach officials, report says

Grover Beach City Hall
Grover Beach City Hall dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Grover Beach residents can’t easily contact their elected officials via email because the city doesn’t provide official city email addresses for each council member, the San Luis Obispo County civil grand jury concluded in a report released Tuesday. It’s the only city in the county that fails to do so, the advisory body said.

Grover Beach also does not list council members’ private emails on the city’s website. These omissions prevent local residents from having direct access to their representatives, grand jurors stated in the report, titled “Email Accessibility to City Government.”

But Grover Beach City Manager Bob Perrault disputed the grand jury’s conclusions and said several ways to contact council members are listed on the city’s website — albeit not through direct email addresses.

Instead, the city provides an email address for all council members (gbadmin@grover.org) as well as a form that can be filled out and submitted on the city’s website (http://www.grover.org/forms.aspx?FID=53). In both cases, the city clerk receives the correspondence and forwards it on to the appropriate council member.

Residents can also write a letter or call city hall, and their comments would be sent on to the intended addressee, Perrault said.

“The conclusion of the report that Grover Beach citizens do not have access to their city officials is inaccurate,” he wrote in an email.

The county’s civil grand jury decided to look into email communications after receiving a citizen complaint alleging the city of Morro Bay had violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law, and had transparency issues with its email system.

More details about the specific allegations were not disclosed, and the grand jury’s administrative assistant said investigations and complaints are confidential. However, the grand jury noted the Brown Act prohibits a majority of members of a legislative body to communicate, either directly, or though electronic communications or intermediaries, to develop a “collective concurrence” on an action.

Grand jurors asked each city for its policies and procedures on how elected officials use email to correspond.

Every city — with the exception of Grover Beach — provides city emails and requires city employees and council members to use them when conducting business by email. Morro Bay just started providing city emails to its council members in October.

“Citizens should not have to seek information regarding their city’s business via any official’s personal email address,” jurors wrote.

The grand jury said it didn’t find any evidence of Brown Act violations in Grover Beach. The grand jury asked for a copy of email policy and procedures and inquired about how citizens have access to council email but didn’t request any copies of emails.

Grand jurors concluded that “information regarding city business discussed on personal emails is not available to the public.”

However, Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said city council emails involving city business would be subject to disclosure under the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act, regardless of which email account is used.

However, he noted, “It’s an area that is still developing in the law.”

A note stating that “correspondence sent to or from members of the City Council may be subject to disclosure” is posted on Grover Beach’s website.

Perrault said the Grover Beach council will discuss the grand jury report at a future meeting and decide whether to change its current policy. He said there would be a cost involved, though it could be minimal.

Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson said she often shares her personal email or cell phone number with constituents, and receives about an email a day from the public related to city business.

Peterson is in favor of having a city email address but noted that the entire council needs to discuss the issue.

“From my experience we all really are very accessible,” she added. “The real issue is how can we efficiently and cost effectively make ourselves as available as possible to the public?”

To read the report, go to http://slocourts.net/grand_jury/reports.