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Monday, December 24, 2007

A New E-Mail Flap, This Time in Cali

The issue seems innocuous on its outside.

Tracy Vice Mayor Suzanne Tucker from her home computer sent e-mails regarding a public forum to officials at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who were jockeying to build a federal infectious-disease research facility near Tracy.

In the end, the Tracy City Council voted to oppose the lab's bid, which the lab later lost to other candidates.

But one issue remains unsettled, one some say could have profound implications on the workings of government and public access: When does a public official become a private person?

Attorneys for the Tracy Press, who lost a legal battle for those e-mails earlier this year in San Joaquin County Superior Court, continue to seek an answer to that question.

Their case is now in the hands of the California Third District Court of Appeal, which could rule any day.

The implications go beyond media access, said Cheri Matthews, editor of the Tracy Press.

"This is a huge issue. It is more than a newspaper issue - it is a public issue," she said.

In e-mails to lab officials last year, Tucker sought to rework the framework of a subcommittee's hearing on the research facility, which she assumed would easily be dominated by opponents.

The city maintains Tucker acted as a private citizen when she sent those e-mails, and denied the newspaper access to them.

A loss in the court of appeal could greatly increase the chances public officials will influence or manipulate government affairs and hide it from the public, said Mark Connolly, attorney for the Tracy Press.

More here.

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