Governor Sends Notecards Rather than E-mail

Governor Sends Notecards Rather than E-mail


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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gov. Jon Huntsman is still old school.

Instead of e-mail, Huntsman writes note cards by hand. He contends that the informality of e-mail and the potential for sending something embarrassing into cyberspace for anyone to read makes him wary of computer communication.

The note cards also may be a way to circumvent the state's open-records law. Advocates for transparent government along with historians wonder how much information there will be for future generations interested in Utah's 16th governor.

"I just can't imagine him getting through the day without an e-mail. How does he do business? It just sounds absurd," said Walter Jones, who works in the University of Utah's Special Collections section.

Huntsman knows it sounds strange. When he needs to see an e-mail, staff members print it out for him. When he communicates with them, he said he fills out one of three different styles of note cards. It's what he did when he was a deputy U.S. trade ambassador and the note cards have served him well, he said.

"I don't do e-mail because I think you can always be set up for an unfortunate incident if you spill your soul. I've seen more legal problems tied up in e-mail than I have in any other form of communication. You have to think twice before using it that way," Huntsman told The Salt Lake Tribune.

In contrast, he said, "I have stacks of note cards."

Huntsman's "no e-mail" office policy has helped him avoid the questions that have confounded past governors and legislators. Members of a legislative task force are considering whether government officials' e-mails should be classified as public record. E-mails to legislators are not treated as public record. But The Salt Lake Tribune sued former Gov. Mike Leavitt to gain access to his e-mail. That case dragged on two years before it ultimately was settled.

With note cards, Huntsman so far has avoided the conflict. In June, The Salt Lake Tribune requested all correspondence between the governor's office and other agencies regarding Huntsman's idea to move the Utah State Prison. The pile of papers the governor's staff provided was made up almost entirely of constituents' e-mail and letters. It contained no comment from any policy makers in the governor's office or the Department of Corrections on the topic.

Similar public records requests have turned up a dearth of e-mail and other correspondence. A request for correspondence regarding former International Trade Director Layne Palmer, for example, turned up one e-mail from Huntsman Chief of Staff Jason Chaffetz -- a single line with a phone number for Palmer.

Chaffetz says he puts every e-mail into a file. His assistant saves them on a hard drive. And the governor's attorney, Mike Lee, sifts through them and deletes those that will not be saved.

"Everybody forewarned (the governor) that e-mail could come back to haunt him: Anything that is coming or going you could read about in the paper," Chaffetz said.

Getting copies of the governor's only other form of written communication, those note cards, is equally difficult. In an interview a month ago, Huntsman spokeswoman Tammy Kikuchi said she kept a file of the governor's missives. But when the newspaper requested her correspondence with the governor, Lee responded: "You are hereby notified that no such documents exist."

Communications Assistant Lindsay Mueller sent an e-mail to all state public information officers suggesting they charge for producing records when responding proved "labor intensive."

Society of Professional Journalists Attorney Jeff Hunt and Common Cause Director Tony Musci worry the governor's attempts to avoid public scrutiny are part of a larger nationwide trend away from public access.

President Bush has cut off historians' access to his father's papers while in the Oval Office. Sandy City recently resisted -- on grounds of post-Sept. 11 security concerns -- providing even the names of police officers.

Charging fees as the governor's office suggests can be a way of blocking public accountability, Musci said.

"Government activities should be as transparent as possible in a democracy," he said. "The records that are kept serve as the foundation for how tax dollars are used. If you can't access those records, you can't fully understand why government officials are doing the things they're doing. It makes it possible for leaders to act in ways that are more nefarious."

Hunt said the governor's machinations are unnecessary. The state's Government Records Access and Management Act provides adequate protections for the governor's correspondence -- limiting access to drafts or contemplated policies, for example.

"There isn't any reason for the governor not to create records, not to use e-mail," Hunt said. "The public loses out."

------ Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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