E-mail purge threatens open government in St. Paul

"Any lawyer, journalist or investigator would tell you that drafts, notes and internal e-mails are critical to understanding how decisions are made. Those kinds of records are nearly always public under Minnesota law, but agencies aren’t required to keep them forever."

November 16, 2015 — 12:06pm

In the name of efficiency, a huge volume of public records in St. Paul have gone poof.

The mass purge in August of 40 percent of the city’s e-mails, first reported last month by Minnesota Public Radio, follows more than a year of careful planning that included at least 11 committee meetings, training sessions and a goofball video to get employees in the e-mail-deleting spirit.

The objective: productivity at City Hall.

“E-mail eats time like nobody’s business,” said Angela Nalezny, the city’s human resources director, and the point person on the great e-mail clean-out. St. Paul now deletes e-mails after six months, instead of three years, for any message that employees haven’t taken action to preserve.

Most of us would wish we could zap 99 percent of our e-mails in one fell swoop.

But it means something different when the government does it. Especially when those e-mails could shed light on something they don’t want us to know.

That’s what concerns John Mannillo, who’s with a new group, St. Paul STRONG, that’s agitating for more openness in city government. Mannillo, who said he has been involved in litigation against the city in which embarrassing details emerged via the release of employee e-mails, thinks the city’s new policy has nothing to do with efficiency. “It’s a matter of what they don’t want to be out there,” he said.

The six-month retention period is far too short, in Mannillo’s view. “It takes that long for these things to percolate enough for people to even want to look at them,” he said.

Indeed, a March 2014 e-mail from a city official to the state IT department describes the goal as “to archive the least amount of mail possible.”

The city’s April 2015 draft of a PowerPoint describes one justification for its new policy: “Saving everything increases the burden on City staff: When the City receives a ‘data request,’ staff must produce ALL records that respond to that request. The more e-mail that is available, the bigger the job of searching for e-mails that respond to a specific request.”

A comment at the bottom of the slide acknowledges that this justification for deleting e-mails “may present a target for criticism from information seekers.”

That’s an understatement. It doesn’t sound good to have a policy of destroying public records so you can spend less time giving them to people who want them.

In the final version of the PowerPoint, the city no longer argues that the hassle of record requests is a justification for getting rid of them.

Nalezny said the city is committed to complying with data requests in a timely manner, which is harder if there are mountains of irrelevant data to sort through.

The point of all this, in her view, is to get the important stuff out of e-mail, and into an electronic filing cabinet for “official records,” which the city is required to keep.

But the policy leaves wide discretion for employees to decide what should be kept, and what should be trashed. In the category of “transitory messages,” the city offers this example: “an e-mail that relates to a contract negotiation. … Once the contract is finalized, the e-mail can be deleted, because it has completed its useful life.”

If the city initially drove a hard bargain with a contractor, and then buckled under pressure, shouldn’t citizens know about it?

Any lawyer, journalist or investigator would tell you that drafts, notes and internal e-mails are critical to understanding how decisions are made. Those kinds of records are nearly always public under Minnesota law, but agencies aren’t required to keep them forever.

It’s important to point out that St. Paul isn’t unique in Minnesota in requiring the preservation only of e-mails considered “official records.” That’s been the policy of the governor’s office through the Pawlenty and Dayton administrations.

Unfortunately, the “official records” almost never tell you what’s really going on.

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.