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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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Government workers, politics, and the internet (04/14/2014)
by Sarah Squires

and Amelia Wedemeyer

“Show the Republicans how democracy works.”

“Join Team Obamacare”

“Unbelievable, Mitch McConnell thinks he can just waltz into Minnesota, buy Senator Al Franken’s seat and ram the GOP’s extreme agenda down our throats.”

“We don’t need more crazy Tea Party ideas.”

It's the familiar and distinctive tone of mass political email campaigns that clog personal accounts. They slam the right or left; they ask for campaign contributions, and the messages begin to pile up when election season is upon us. No matter which side a person is on, the messages are familiar, but these emails came to the inbox of a local government employee.

After stumbling upon a host of partisan emails in a local government employee's email account during an unrelated search, the Winona Post examined one year of the employee's emails that mentioned words like "campaign," "GOP," "DFL," or "election," and found the local government employee received 145 political emails during the 12-month period. They ranged from frac sand protest information to mass emails from President Barack Obama, and the employee contributed money to the democratic party at least once from that government desk.

While it might seem innocuous to send or receive political emails and make donations while at work at a government job, the recent controversy surrounding the "Governor Scott Walker/John Doe investigation" shows just how quickly the act of playing partisan politics while on the government payroll can escalate into criminal charges and public scandal.

State statutes and local government policies prohibit government employees from partaking in political or religious promotional activities while they are on the taxpayer’s dime. Yet, local government officials admit, it still happens.

State law

Minnesota statutes, chapter 43A, prohibit government employees from soliciting or receiving political funds, or “to pay or promise to pay any assessment, subscription, or contribution or to take part in any political activity,” while on the job.

Winona County

Winona County has a policy that dictates how employees may use email and internet privileges that explicitly states employees can use email for personal reasons, but may not use email or work resources for "political, religious, personal financial profit, or other promotional activities." The policy also states that any personal internet or telephone use must be done during work breaks or other personal time.

"We've had issues over the years," admitted Winona County Personnel Director Maureen Holte. She said problems with personal or political use of county email accounts has not been "extensive," but said both warnings and disciplinary action have been taken against employees who have violated the policy. No county employee has been fired for such email use, she said, although violations of the email policy have contributed to the termination of employees in some cases.

"For the most part, it's just emailing family and friends," she said. "We had one where we had an individual with potential for gain attempting to run a personal business."

Holte said that they do not routinely monitor employee email accounts, but its policy reserves the right to inspect any and all such information.

Winona Area Public Schools

Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) policy is the least restrictive and most vague of the local government email and internet policies. District employees are governed by the same rules that regulate WAPS students’ email and internet capabilities. The policy does not specifically ban employees from using their government provided email accounts for partisan politics, rather it restricts online bullying and other inappropriate uses of the internet. The lengthy policy states that “employees should not have expectations of privacy. Because email is not private, employees should avoid sending personal messages that are sensitive or confidential.” Any violation of the policy is grounds for discipline or termination.

“We don’t deal with this issue very often – there are typically no issues or concerns with employees,” WAPS director of human resources Pat Blaisdell said, but admitted that she does not monitor “employee emails on a day-to-day basis.”

City of Winona

The city of Winona also has a policy that dictates the way employees may use email accounts while at work, and, similar to Winona County's regulations on the issue, the "promotion of political or religious positions or activities" is prohibited. Employees may use email accounts “for occasional employee purposes that [do] not result in any additional costs of loss of time or resources for their intended business purpose.”

City employees’ computers and emails “may be monitored, read, examined, seized, or confiscated as necessary in the city’s judgment and discretion.”

Chris Rogers contributed to this report.  


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