Pioneer Press Editorial Email Deletions August 31, 2016

Saint Paul Pioneer Press

Editorial

Are we losing too much of the public record?’

With news stories about St. Paul city workers’ email messages making headlines, an event sponsored by public records advocates has both good timing and a provocative title: “Deleting history? Deleting news? Are we losing too much of the public record?”

The Sept. 8 panel discussion, sponsored by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, comes after release of messages and documents that raise questions about public officials’ candor as they advanced a sick- and safe-time mandate for all employers in St. Paul and held soccer stadium talks.

Planning for the panel took root with discussion of the city’s email-deletion policy, in place for a year. Now, emails in employees’ inboxes are automatically deleted after six months, unless the messages are placed in other folders, where they will be retained for three years.

MNCOGI observes that “in this electronic era, government records are easier to destroy, denying the public information that could document the history of our time, bolster news reports” and provide “other checks on government accountability.”

Don Gemberling — a longtime state leader on freedomof- information and privacy matters who will be among the session’s panelists— told us it’s hard to gauge the impact of the email policy change. He asks, “How do you know if stuff is disappearing if it’s disappeared?”

The rub, according to Gemberling: “ At some point, somebody has to decide, for purposes of preservation, whether or not some set of data … is an official record” under the state’s records management statute. In the final analysis, “some employee gets to decide, and it may be the employee with an email that makes them look terrible,” he said. “Do we really think that individual is going to go out of their way to preserve it?”

Another panelist raises more questions. Among government officials, “there’s a real hesitancy, increasingly, to either write things down in emails or to retain them,” Minnesota’s Legislative Auditor James Nobles observed.

There’s talk that if materials “are going to become part of the public record and potentially subject to some kind of discovery,” he said, officials might say they are “just not going to write this stuff down.”

We reached out for the city’s perspective from Angela Nalezny, St. Paul’s human resources director, who told us the policy change has been a non-issue for staff members.

“We spent a lot of time last summer training employees on what is an official record, how long do you keep it” and where it should be filed, she told us, emphasizing that “there should be no official records kept in email.”

We also checked in with some community observers: The government-watchdog group St. Paul Strong has committed to make ongoing data practices requests for any issues “deemed important,” it said in a news release. Spokesman John Mannillo told us the only excuse the city gave for wanting to delete emails “was that it was too expensive to save all that data.”

“Well, the opposite is true. It’s becoming easier all the time,” he said, adding that the resulting lack of transparency adds up to “poor government.”

Mike Zipko, a St. Paul-based public affairs consultant, worked with the Grand Avenue Business Association to obtain and review City Hall emails on the proposed sickand safe-time ordinance. He maintains that the debate about how long city emails should be kept unfortunately draws attention away from what could be the more important issue about how the city will make key decisions.

They are being made, he responded in an email, in a way that is increasingly “viewed as being biased or insular,” creating an environment that “leaves a hangover of distrust for the next, bigger decision” and leads to more data practices requests “from people who are afraid there is more ‘not known’ than known.”

Good point. When the emails city employees delete one day might be important to the public another, we remain concerned about the city policy’s risk to transparency and open government.

If you go: The panel discussion is 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Rondo Community Outreach Library, 461 N. Dale St. The program is free, but registration is required via a link at mncogi.org.