By Mike Kaszuba
In May 2021, Public Record Media (PRM) asked the Office of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz for correspondence that the governor might be sending and receiving using the email, firstname.lastname@example.org, instead of his presumed official email account, email@example.com. (Multiple publicly-available communications sent to the Governor’s Office were addressed to the latter email, as witnessed by the document collection at the link).
In December 2021, a spokesperson for the governor said that Walz, since becoming governor, has exclusively used the firstname.lastname@example.org account – and, more importantly, does not typically use emails as a means of communication. The spokesperson added that “the Governor’s decisions are made primarily in meetings with advisors.” PRM recently spoke with Claire Lancaster, Walz’s press secretary, to ascertain what communication tools Walz does use, and how his decision-making was preserved for the public record. What follows are Questions and Answers from the conversation.
LANCASTER: “I just want to clear the air on a couple of these [questions]. So, when did the governor’s office begin releasing email data from Tim.Mankato? That is always searched. It’s always searched, for instance, say, when we get a data request. Every single time.
“Since he’s been governor, that’s the only email address he has used.”
PRM: “Since he’s been governor, that’s the only one he’s used?”
LANCASTER: “I think maybe there’s a misunderstanding about this Tim.Walz email account. So, is it your impression that that is [the] primary email account for the governor?”
PRM: “We were under the impression that most public officials at the state level – [that’s] the standard way they were set up (like, for example, Claire.email@example.com , or firstname.lastname@example.org).”
LANCASTER: “For staff, yeah.
“[But] I would assume, you know, Gretchen Whitmer’s email is not Gretchen.Whitmer. [Whitmer is the governor of Michigan]. The president, I assume – the president, you know, is not Joe.Biden.”
But “like you, that is what people assume would be the email.”
LANCASTER: “We have, of course, a way to reach the [governor’s] office. You go to our website – there’s a way [for] constituents to reach our office and get their questions answered.
“But as with any prominent elected official, the most effective way for people to get their questions answered is not by directly emailing, you know, the governor.”
PRM: “Again, to make sure I’m understanding, email@example.com has never really been used by this governor?”
LANCASTER: “Right. [But] we know that that is the assumption that people have. And, so, if you email that account, you’ll get a bounce-back [email] kind of [instead] directing you how to reach our office.
“I’m sure there’s an in-box there [for firstname.lastname@example.org], but it’s non-functional.”
PRM: “We got this data [from the governor’s office] that was 331 pages, and there doesn’t seem to be anything from the governor himself in all this traffic.”
LANCASTER: “Yes. Yeah.”
PRM: “So, and we know that other media outlets that have requested data and have received data from the governor’s office – from this governor’s office – have reported the same thing.
“[They] get hundreds, in some cases, thousands of pages of data related to what one would think would be very important and timely topics – like, for example, the state’s COVID response – and there is very little, if anything, directly from the governor in all of this.”
LANCASTER: “I would say that’s just not how the governor’s day is structured; that’s not how he operates. [For example], I don’t think, like, the president is sitting there, emailing, in times of crisis.
“I don’t think any other governor really uses email all that much.
“The way his day is kind of structured is, he receives materials and he gets briefings or meetings to discuss further and make a decision. [In] times of civil unrest, for example, he was physically with his top advisors, his commissioners, you know, chief of staff – in person. And he was given, sometimes almost hourly, press briefings, you know, in person. He will receive information via email, but that’s kind of not how his day is structured – him sitting there, sending emails.”
PRM: “Let me ask you what might be, in one sense, a hypothetical but in another sense a practical thing at the same time.
“At 8 o’clock on a Saturday night when the governor wants to get a hold of you, and you’re 50 miles away, how do you communicate with him?
LANCASTER: “Via call, or text – or Teams Meeting [Microsoft Teams, a software program].”
“Teams Meeting? I mean, that’s generally the way, so you can get the appropriate staff involved.”
“It’s like Zoom.”
[PRM subsequently asked Lancaster whether the governor’s staff kept a record of what occurred in a Teams meeting – such as a summary or a transcript – and, if so, how that was preserved. Lancaster replied that “when staff bring[s] decisions to the Governor, it is their responsibility to then put them in motion and track any necessary follow up.” Lancaster did not address how those discussions are preserved for the record.]
PRM: “I can’t speak for other media outlets but, typically, our requests basically ask for all correspondence, and by that our intent is never to limit anything to just emails.”
LANCASTER: “I’m not a lawyer. I can’t speak to that. [I] assume [the governor’s office] forensically researched for whatever was appropriate.”
PRM: “To get back to the basic point here is, [you] have a lot of chatter on a very timely and critical topic and there is really nothing from the governor to be found in any of this. Obviously, the governor’s playing a critical, central role, but what’s being released almost has him as a non-participant. We all sort of assume that that, of course, is not the case.”
LANCASTER: “Right, [but] like I said that wouldn’t reflect meetings. And that’s how decisions are made are in meetings, so the governor can discuss, he can ask questions, staff can follow up appropriately.
“That’s just how governors operate. I mean, that’s how I assume CEO’s [chief executives in the private sector] operate, too. I assume they’re not sitting there, emailing their decisions.”
PRM: “If you’re saying, and I understand, [that] the governor [he] does primarily use emails as a way to communicate – OK. But the requests are for whatever he is using.”
LANCASTER: “I’m saying, how would we send over a meeting to you?”
“You have hundreds of pages of, you know, materials from staff, etc. [related to the data request regarding the governor’s response to the COVID pandemic]”
PRM: “But, by and large, [that material] is sort of perfunctory meeting scheduling – [like an email saying] ‘Can you make a 3 o’clock on Tuesday?’ [It’s mostly from] lower-level people in the governor’s office or elsewhere in state government. And, out of 300 pages, you know, a hundred pages could be just that.
“We’re asking all for all correspondence, which we believe is public. Whatever format that is happening in, we believe is public.
“Just to focus on emails, and then say, well, the governor doesn’t use email – really hasn’t. And, OK, then what is he using, and why aren’t we getting that?”
LANCASTER: “I don’t know how to say this differently. He gets his information and makes his decisions primarily via meeting [or Teams Meeting], or in person.”
PRM: “But are you really saying that all of the governor’s communication is verbal to 8 or 10 people that are standing around his desk?”
LANCASTER: “We use Microsoft Teams, like I said, most frequently.
“I’m not saying that there’s a whole new form of communication. I’m just saying email is certainly something that staff uses and, you know, people lower than the governor [use].”
PRM: “Is the governor texting?”
LANCASTER: “He texts.”
PRM: “And we’re not getting that, why?”
LANCASTER: “I can’t speak to that.”
[NOTE: PRM’s May 28, 2021 request to the Governor’s Office was specific to two email accounts. PRM has since submitted a follow-up request for additional data from other platforms.]
By Mike Kaszuba