Local Politics

State E-Mail Policy Heads to Panel

A panel reviewing policies concerning state employees and their e-mail will meet today. An accusation that state workers were told to delete e-mails sparked the debate.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A panel reviewing policies concerning state employees and their e-mail planned to meet Friday.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley appointed the panel after a fired employee claimed Easley's administration had an unofficial policy of deleting e-mail communications daily.

In a meeting earlier this month, panel members heard from media representatives who said they want every state e-mail saved. That debate has moved from the meeting room to the courtroom.

State Auditor Leslie Merritt said in a letter that the e-mail Records Review Panel should take the Office of the State Auditor’s mission into consideration while reviewing the state’s e-mail retention policies.

“For the Office of the State Auditor, e-mails serve as information in the audit trail,” Merritt said. “They tend to confirm the occurrence of actual events and provide a unique window into the operation of state government.”

Whether state business or spam, employees decide what e-mails to delete from their computers.

Leaders of media organizations in North Carolina say every e-mail should be saved because the messages could be important public records in the future.

“Any policy that allows destruction of e-mail is in blatant violation of our state’s Open Records Law,” said Rick Thames, editor of The Charlotte Observer, one of the media outlets that have sued Easley to get a court order to save e-mail. The News & Observer and The Associated Press are also plaintiffs in the case.

That's the case being made to the panel Easley convened to reviewing the state's e-mail retention policies. Accusations that state workers were told to delete e-mails from the governor's office were the spark for the controversy.

The executive branch receives nearly 900,000 e-mails every day. Easley and others have argued that keeping all of them would take up too much disk space and cost too much money.

“Cost and inconvenience cannot be a factor. A public record must be preserved. Period,” Thames said.

One newspaper editor estimated that e-mail archive system for the state could cost from $120,000 to $3 million.