By Johnathan Silver

Public officials who use private email accounts to conduct official business cannot conceal their personal email addresses when releasing public information, a state appeals court ruled Friday.

The question dates back to 2011, when The Austin Bulldog, an independent online news site, filed several open records requests asking for all emails regarding city business between the Austin mayor, city council members and the city manager, according to court papers. The city immediately turned over some information, but withheld the rest, asking the attorney general's office for advice on whether that remaining information was subject to disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act.

The office advised the city to turn over those documents, which it did. However, the city redacted the personal email addresses of city officials, complicating the flow of conversations because it was unclear who was saying what and to whom. The city said an exemption under the Public Information Act allowed it to redact personal email addresses in disclosed correspondences if the email address belonged to a "member of the public." 

The Austin Bulldog sued the city in Travis County District Court, arguing that that exemption does not apply to government officials. The court agreed with the city's interpretation of the law.

The Austin Bulldog appealed the decision to the 3rd Court of Appeals. The court said Friday in its ruling that "member of the public" refers to "a person who belongs to the community or people as a whole." And although city officials as individuals are members of the public, when conducting official business they are members of a governmental body, the court says.

"Therefore, the City Officials’ email addresses are not shielded from disclosure and must be disclosed as public information," the court ruled.

The ruling could have implications on communications among officials at the state level. In August, Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials were called out for using the "member of the public" exception to shield personal emails that discussed government business. Attorney General Ken Paxton used the same exception to defend the practice.

Bill Aleshire, an attorney for The Austin Bulldog, celebrated Friday's decision, saying the attorney general's office has been wrong for 15 years by relying on the "member of the public" exemption to shield officials' personal email addresses.

"It's a good day for open government in Texas," Aleshire said in a statement. "Public officials and employees have no excuse for using their personal email accounts to conduct official business in the first place, and, now, if they do it, their personal email addresses will be publicly disclosed."

The City of Austin law department, through a city spokesperson, said it will "advise our clients of this new interpretation."