Local Politics

Media: All Government E-Mails Public Records

Posted April 3, 2008 5:38 a.m. EDT
Updated April 3, 2008 3:17 p.m. EDT

— 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.