Local Politics

Media: All Government E-Mails Public Records

Posted April 3, 2008

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— The state should archive all e-mails to and from government offices as public records that could be examined later, media representatives told a state panel Thursday.

Gov. Mike Easley appointed the committee to review policies on handling e-mails and text messages after a fired Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said last month that the Governor's Office had an unwritten policy to delete e-mails every day.

Easley and members of his staff have denied the allegation, although handwritten notes from two public information officers support the fired worker's claim. The notes, taken during a May 2007 meeting, indicated the governor's press office told public information officers to delete e-mails.

In a Wednesday interview, Easley said he trusted state employees to delete only frivolous e-mails, such as invitations and jokes.

Media representatives told the committee Thursday morning that employees shouldn't be put in the position of determining what is a public record.

"Any policy that allows the destruction of e-mails is in blatant violation of the state's open records law. It also offends the principle of open government that this state cherishes so much," said Rick Thames, editor of The Charlotte Observer. "No individual can decide what is or isn't of lasting value. The people of North Carolina will decide the value of that public record."

Mark Prak, an attorney for the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, said e-mails were critical to building a criminal case against former House Speaker Jim Black. Black pleaded guilty last year to state and federal corruption charges and is now serving a federal prison sentence.

"(E-mails) are an essential part of the government oversight process by citizens and the media," Prak said.

Easley said the executive branch of state government receives about 900,000 e-mails each work day. He said it would be costly to save every message.

Media representatives said the state should look into purchasing e-mail archiving software, which one editor said could cost from $120,000 to $3 million. They said the cost and inconvenience of storing e-mails shouldn't be an excuse to delete the messages.

"Do we in fact have potentially an institutional abuse of the retention of e-mails? That is where we need to start," said Jim Hefner, WRAL general manager and president of the Association of Broadcasters.

A representative for state employees said policies need to set clear guidelines regarding e-mail.

"What we don't want to happen is for state employees is to be pulled into a political situation, where they're making judgment calls and politicians second-guessing their judgment," said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.


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  • Stopped Counting Apr 4, 2008

    And if you have to save everything, what do you do about the spam that your IT department prevented you from getting in the first place? DataClerk has a point, save the outgoing, not the incoming. There is a lot less to save since you only save 1 copy not 1 copy for each of the kazillion people who were copied on the email.

  • fkhaywood Apr 4, 2008

    Few people seem to be aware to the fact that once something is put on a hard drive, it is there forever until it is written over, which only happens when the hard drive is filled to capacity, or the hard drive is destroyed. This applies to all emails, files, and cookies that show what web sites the user has been to. Even when you 'delete' the above, they are still there, most people cannot get to them. Only some law enforcement agencies can access them, it takes specia; software to access them. Why do you think law enforcement agencies confiscate peoples' computers after a crime and are able to produce the emails and links they do, even if they have been supposedly 'deleted' them. ONCE ENTERED ON A COMPUTER, THE DATA IS FOREVER THERE EXCEPT AS MENTIONED ABOVE.
    To be such a technology savy generation, most people seem to dumb as dirt about how technology devices operate.
    From a 61 year old "baby boomer" electrical engineer.

  • twc Apr 4, 2008

    How about scratch pads, doodles, etc.? These should all be scanned and filed? When is trash not trash? Does over reaction fit here? I think so!!

  • asdfg Apr 3, 2008

    Saving/Archiving all state emails is a waste of taxpayer money. The 900,000 emails is just the executive branch, what about the other branches. Save the elected, appointed, and high-ranking officials emails, those are the ones people are concerned with and those people should expect public scrutiny, but for the rest of the state employees, our emails are of little concern to the public. If there is reason to suspect an employee of wrongdoing, even deleted emails can be recovered from a personal computer. The state auditor, Les Merritt, actually had the computers in Richard Moore's office investigated earlier this year after reports of misuse. Recovered material showed the computers had been used for political or campaign purposes.

  • Tripwire Apr 3, 2008

    Terabyte drive? Heck we are still using 20 gig drives with 256 megs of memory. We get turned down on request to buy more memory. If a drive crashes or power supply fails we have to scavenge one from another machine that's not being used. You'd be surprised at some of the equipment government offices are using. I've got machines in my attic that are more powerful that I don't even use any more. My servers are 15 years old and you can't even get parts for them any more. I'm just saying don't think that just because it's a government oganization that they are on the cutting edge technology wise. The people who control the funds generaly are clueless about technology.

  • georgegray Apr 3, 2008

    "We care because some of these emails may contain information, directives, or unofficial policies that negatively impact public interest or the law."

    So, I guess state employees should record every conversation they have, too? This is why our government is so inefficient! Suppose I'm a state employee and I want to bounce an idea off of one of my colleagues. If I choose to do it efficiently via email -- then suddenly it's public record. On the other hand, if I waste the taxpayers money by driving over to his office across town or spending my time on the clock trying to catch him on the phone, then I don't have to worry about it. Makes sense.

    Email (as well as instant messaging and text messaging) is supposed to be a quick way to communicate. It's supposed to save us some time and free us up to do more important things -- just like phone calls did when they first arrived over a century ago.

  • dk12 Apr 3, 2008

    lets see 900,000 emails/day -
    if each email was 10k. remember email is mostly text therefor small..
    I know assumptions..
    but 900k * 10 K is 9000 M - 9gb...who cannot store 9gb on their personal computer. I know this is just 1 day, but if we say there are 250 working days in year the 9 gb *250 is 2.25 tb/year...last time I looked a terabyte drive from tiger direct was under 500 dollars. so for $500/year all the emails could be saved!! and to really safe buy 10 of these drives and rotate them.

    gee, I wish someone would pay me 3 millon to save them. where do I apply??

  • killerkestrel Apr 3, 2008

    I'm a state employee too, and if I didn't move/delete email, my account would be full within a month. There is not enough server space to save the emails. I move most of them to my account on my computer to archive them since things always seem to come up where you need some info from a few years ago. I think we are still holding paperwork from Hurricane Floyd, 9 years ago! And many projects last longer than 3 years from being thought of to being completed.

  • happymom Apr 3, 2008

    kmanc4s asked "why do we care?"

    We care because some of these emails may contain information, directives, or unofficial policies that negatively impact public interest or the law.

    Suppose it came to light that a public official directed a state employee to handle money in an improper way. The email trail would tell investigators who knew what when.

    Email is important. Memos and paper communications were important in the Nixon Whitehouse too. The thing is, you can only make the determinination about WHICH communications are important in hindsight. That's why everything should be kept. At least for a number of years.

  • rpd911 Apr 3, 2008

    spending money on a server of any kind to store emails is stupid. Instead, lets give public service workers better equipment, say better equipment for the highway patrol or something for the teachers. Why waste money storing emails that say "Hey Mike, good to see you the other day" or "Click Here for the newest ....." It's stupid and wasteful to do this. Delete them and forget them.