Utah school board found no violation after member Natalie Cline used private email for communication

This isn’t the first time Cline’s actions have come under question.

(Utah State Board of Education) Pictured is Utah State School Board members Natalie Cline.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.

Utah’s state school board examined whether a controversial member broke the law in using her private email account to discuss board matters and communicate with constituents.

On Thursday, Attorney Bryan Quesenberry, who represents the Utah State Board of Education through his position with the Utah Attorney General’s Office, said he found no violation.

Records provided to and verified by The Salt Lake Tribune show member Natalie Cline sent emails from a personal Gmail account. Those include messages about critical race theory with one member of the public and, in another, Cline emailing a law firm about an audit of the state school board.

Mark Peterson, the spokesperson for the Utah State Board of Education, originally said the board’s attorney was forwarded the emails, which he examined.

“I can confirm that the Utah State Board of Education is aware of the allegations and is looking into them,” Peterson said last week.

Those employed by the state of Utah, whether elected or hired, are supposed to use their state-provided email accounts to discuss public matters and talk to residents. The communications via those addresses — both to and from the accounts — are subject to release under the law with public records requests (as are other communications, including text messages).

A document from Utah State Archives on the topic notes: “State provided email is considered to be the primary venue for conducting State business, and such business should not be conducted using third party email providers.”

The document also explicitly states that “email that is work-function related, and has administrative, legal, fiscal, or historical value, is a record” under the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA. Employees are instructed not to delete any messages in their email accounts or on their phones.

Using a private email, then, could be an attempt to not produce records that are searchable under GRAMA. A violation, depending on the severity, could result in charges.

The members of the Utah State Board of Education, such as Cline, are elected and fall under the parameters. They are provided “.gov” email addresses to conduct business.

Cline did not respond to initial requests for comment from The Tribune. But in an email Thursday, she said she never replied to the constituent’s email on critical race theory.

“If I had chosen to respond, would it have been necessary for me to switch over and reply from my official email instead of replying from the email address he used to reach out to me?” she asked Quesenberry in an email thread that included The Tribune.

Quesenberry didn’t appear to answer in the thread, but shared with The Tribune a section of state code that says an office holder doesn’t violate the law if they’re responding to a question sent to a private account.

The emails provided to The Tribune show Cline using a Google email address. In one, from September 2021, she sends a message to Lavar Christensen, an attorney and former Republican state representative in Utah, using his law firm address.

The message does not include any text, but has an attachment: an audit conducted by the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General, looking into the governance of the Utah State Board of Education. The audit found that the board needed to better align its direction with state statute and work on improving staff turnover.

The audit is dated April 2021, about five months before Cline’s email. Quesenberry said Thursday that isn’t a violation of GRAMA.

In another email, Cline is messaged by a constituent, who is upset about a recent Facebook post she made about critical race theory, a college-level academic framework about that posits race and racism have defined American society and institutions. Conservatives, including Cline, have spoken against the theory, saying it is being taught in K-12 classrooms. There is no evidence of that happening in Utah.

It is unclear how many emails related to board matters Cline sent via her personal address. The Tribune was sent the two threads.

This is not the the first time that Cline’s actions have been questioned.

Cline has previously drawn criticism for speaking against “indoctrination” in education, the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ community — calling queer kids “gender confused.” She also has been called out for attacking a teacher on Facebook.

She was disciplined for some of those comments late last year in the first time board leadership has ever reprimanded a member.

Cline won her four-year term in November 2020 in the first partisan elections for the board, by a margin of 38 percentage points. She currently represents an area that includes the southern part of Salt Lake County and the northwestern part of Utah County.

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