Email Deletions & School Board open-meeting practices

Editorial: Opt for more information and more access

By Pioneer Press Editorial Board

February 19, 2017

Some questionable government-data and open-meeting practices in our hometown are in line for corrective action at the Capitol.

St. Paul residents should welcome the scrutiny.

Their city government has an email retention policy, launched in 2015, under which messages in employees’ inboxes are automatically deleted after six months (unless the emails are placed in other folders, where they will be retained for three years). Government watchdogs raise good questions about what’s retained, what’s lost and how the decisions might weaken government transparency and accountability.

Their school board last year sought and won an advisory opinion allowing it to close some meetings. It should be noted that the board ultimately did not exercise that option under the opinion, but the issue is germane. The opinion from the state’s Department of Administration, which advises public bodies under Minnesota’s open meeting law, said the board could hold closed meetings to improve trust, relationships, communications and collaborative problem-solving among its members. Not the public’s business? That’s a stretch.

“We’re lucky to have people who are paying attention to this stuff,” said Matt Ehling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, an open-government organization.

Proposals to address the issues have bipartisan support, and lawmakers should smooth their path to passage.

Included is a bill from Rep. Peggy Scott, an Andover Republican and House Civil Law Committee chair, that “has the right elements,” Ehling told us. With government units implementing varied policies, it calls for standardization with a minimum three-year retention period, and clarifies what’s defined as “correspondence” to include emails, as well as letters, other documents and records.

In recent years, we’ve see such entities as the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office and the city of St. Paul “start squeezing down the amount of time that they’re retaining emails,” said Ehling. Once that happens, “when you make records requests, you’re going to run up against the fact that things have been thrown out.”

The sheriff’s office, for example, is retaining emails for only 30 days “before they do an auto-delete,” he said, “and that’s just not long enough for people to be able to identify an issue and go back and ask for public information about government operations.”

“We’ve seen that trend accelerating,” said Ehling, who chairs his organization’s legislative issues committee.

The concern with policies like St. Paul’s, he said, includes material in the “transitory” category of emails that are bound for deletion. The city’s policy is saying, “Don’t worry about it; let it auto-delete. You don’t have to hold on to that.”

What worries open-records advocates, however, is that there’s “a lot of discretion in there for stuff to fall through the cracks,” Ehling said. “What we’re trying to do is urge that more specificity be brought to that.”

There’s recognition that not everything should be kept forever, Ehling acknowledges, but Scott’s bill seeks to replace vagueness and discretion about what can be disposed of with “better definition.”

The open-meeting measure — from Rep. Jeff Howe, a Rockville Republican — would address an interpretation of the law under which the school-board opinion was rendered. It allows closed meetings for “a public body’s training and planning sessions” and the board was instructed to avoid any issues specific to its official business during the sessions.

Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul, ranking Democrat on the Civil Law Committee, told us he was surprised by the closed-meeting opinion. “That’s certainly not how we expect this to work,” he said. “You can have all the team-building exercises you want. This isn’t an H.R. department… This is the school board. That absolutely should be public.”

The bill is an appropriate fix, he told us.

Its language defines “meeting” as a gathering of a quorum or more of members at which they “discuss, decide or receive information as a group.”

School board meetings are clearly the public’s business. So is the trend by government units’ toward automatic deletion of emails.

The Pioneer Press’ Frederick Melo summed up the conundrum between public officials who defend the practice as necessary housekeeping versus the concerns of government watchdogs, journalists and archivists. He asked: “In the electronic age, how much information is too much information for government to sort and share with taxpayers? When does erasing messages — even seemingly casual ones — violate the public’s right to know?”

We opt for more information and more access. Lawmakers should, too.