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|County Supervisors Rubber Stamp E-Mail Destruction Policy|
|Commentary/Politics - Editorials|
|Written by Todd McGreevy|
|Monday, 23 December 2013 13:30|
On December 19, the Scott County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to adopt the following language for the information-technology (IT) policy for county staff: “The IT Department will maintain a copy of all e-mails sent or received for a period of three years from the date in which they are sent or received. Records may be retained for a longer time period if it is subject to a litigation hold.”
A day earlier, I published an open letter to the board asking it to defer action. (See sidebar.) At the meeting, I was allowed to address the board prior to the vote, and the 14-minute audio recording of that exchange is available below.Download Embed Embed this video on your site
Prior to the meeting, I had phone conversations with Chair Larry Minard and supervisors William P. Cusack and Carol T. Earnhardt. On these calls, it was explained to me that “all the important e-mails will be saved.” When asked about details – such as who will be determining what e-mails are important – the answers varied from department heads to staff to one or two county attorneys. When pressed what the criteria were for retention past three years, the answers included “We just have to trust staff to know what to do” to “The frivolous e-mails will go.” The policies of the State of Iowa and the City of Davenport were cited several times in these phone calls and at the meeting, but no particulars were given. The party line was that these entities destroy old e-mails much sooner than the county was proposing.
At the meeting, Minard said the board could have done this administratively and not even told the public what it was doing. The vote, he said, was “an effort to be transparent.” He read aloud what he said were excerpts from the Iowa League of Cities policy manual on record retention, asserting that this move was being done to improve efficiency and the county’s ability to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, and to “turn liabilities into assets.”
The state of Iowa was lauded as an example of a similar policy – with an even shorter time frame for retention – by one of the board members.
Yet Iowa’s retention policy dates back to 2003 and does not endorse purging e-mail messages indiscriminately. The policy (RCReader.com/y/email2) states that “simply backing up the e-mail system onto tapes or other media or purging all messages after a set amount of time are not appropriate strategies for managing mail” (emphasis added). In 2004, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller wrote that e-mail concerning “an agency’s official policy statement on matters of historical significance ... should be archived permanently” (RCReader.com/y/email3).
Beyond that, Iowa’s policy is not as simple as destroying e-mail after a single set period of time. The Iowa State Records Commission determines how long records must be kept on a type-by-type basis (RCReader.com/y/email4). The commission advises that electronic records should be treated the same as paper records and retained according to approved schedules (RCReader.com/y/email5).
At the Board of Supervisors meeting, I asserted that while the board cited the state’s policy as a model, nobody in the room could identify what the state’s e-mail retention policy actually stated.
When pressed for more details about the decision-making process at the meeting, County Administrator Dee Bruemmer explained that every Monday morning, staff would get a notification to approve or amend the contents of one’s “trash bin,” where previously deleted e-mails older than three years old were identified. Staff would have the opportunity to remove e-mails from the trash bin that they did not want to be permanently deleted from the system.
Bruemmer said that “we have been practicing” for some time now. So while Minard claimed this vote as a transparent governance practice, Bruemmer proclaimed that staff has already been destroying e-mails prior to the board approving the new policy.
Details remain very muddy about how all of this is supposed to protect the interests of Scott County taxpayers.
And despite the additional context at the meeting and in prior phone calls, none of those details is reflected in the actual policy language that was approved.
While the board did suffer my inquiries, the attitude of all involved was clearly that I was sweating the details of things that need not concern me – nothing to see here, move along. Which begs the question: What particular important topics that are older than three years old are possibly at risk of being destroyed?
How about the uncapped taxing authority of the Scott Emergency Communications Center board when it was formed more than five years ago? How about the no-bid contracts for first-responder radio handsets that cost taxpayers millions and don’t work inside metal buildings? How about more recent efforts that could be deleted years from now – such as the effort to fast-track the Orascom fertilizer super-site, foregoing the land-use rules that the rest of the populace has to follow? How about conflicts of interest by county staff in their dealings with non-government businesses and entities in the region such as the former Quad City Development Group, the new chamber of commerce, and lobbyists for mega-site developers?
Should the county staff not be open for business? Of course not. They have to interact with all of the entities above to be responsive to the tax-paying public. But missives penned by staff that are negotiations – or are evidence of any bias that is in clear conflict with current policy, especially on those pesky particular matters that Assistant County Administrator Mary Thee referenced in an October memo – should remain a part of the record for as long as the current statute of limitations for state and federal whistleblower cases.
What the board claimed they were doing last week does not comport with the policy they approved, period. More questions arise from last week’s meeting, and it should have been tabled. For example: Where in this policy does it preclude a person from moving an item that was three years old or more last week and not in the trash bin into a trash bin for the next week’s purging?
There are many more details that are extremely squishy, and it is plain that this board has zero handle on what is actually going on, technically. Nor are they equipped to ask the proper questions. They will tell you that’s why they have staff – to assist in these kinds of situations. And they are right. But when the assistant county administrator sends out a memo citing an increase in public requests for records and possible litigation as reasons for implementing a very undefined policy that destroys important public records, it is time to table such a policy request by staff until this board has had more input from different voices and perspectives.
Citizens better get their FOIA requests into the county prior to January 2. The form to submit a FOIA request is available at RCReader.com/y/email8. Be sure to include that you want all e-mails within the “trash bins” to be part of the search for records.
The October 11 communication (RCReader.com/y/email6) that Assistant County Administrator Mary Thee sent out to you and county staff speaks volumes about why you should table a vote on December 19 to implement a policy that destroys, after three years, any e-mails sent and received by county employees.
What is readily apparent is that the storage of said information is not the issue. It is the possibility of staff having to provide those e-mails to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or litigation.
Thee states this in her second bullet point: “There is a growing trend in Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation to request e-mail correspondence on particular topics.”
If you enact this new policy (page 11 at RCReader.com/y/email7), you will be telling the taxpayers of Scott County that you are against government transparency – that you don’t want the people to have access to what its government is, and has been, up to.
You will effectively be authorizing the needless destruction of evidence. The e-mails in question are a part of the record of the conduct of the government body you are responsible for.
“Particular topics”? Which particular topics, Ms. Thee? If this board can be swayed into enacting such a policy because the public is seeking information on “particular topics,” what’s next?
In the future, if some particular topic, other than the ones Thee does not articulate, becomes troublesome to staff, will staff then recommend that all e-mails older than 30 days be destroyed?
It’s fortunate for the taxpayers of Scott County that Thee actually documented the motivations behind the staff’s efforts to destroy the record of its own actions. While the phrase “E-mail Retention” is her subject line, the true nature of this policy change is e-mail destruction.
The notion that the cost of data storage is a problem is a red herring. Data storage is very inexpensive, and costs per unit of storage continue to decline year after year. Regardless, Thee offers no evidence of this statement or any cost/benefit analysis whatsoever to support this reason for destroying older e-mails.
Taxpayers are required to keep records for up to seven years by taxing authorities. The Scott Emergency Communications Center building has equipment that is storing massive amounts of video and audio data on citizens and their activities. But county government just can’t afford to keep any e-mails older than three years old?
Well, if you read Thee’s memo closely, county government can afford to keep e-mails for more than three years – if it chooses to: “Please do store e-mail that needs to be maintained beyond three years electronically in one of two methods … .”
So, if it approves this new policy, the Scott County Board of Supervisors will be enabling a double set of books, so to speak. The public could request a copy of a communication older than three years old, but it would never actually know whether that communication was stored in one of the ways Thee recommends.
Who decides what should be stored and not stored? And what are the criteria?
While staff may have a communication more than three years old, it can claim it was destroyed as part of this policy you are being asked to approve on December 19.
Please table this vote, and require staff to provide answers to questions such as these:
• What is the cost of storing data older than three years old? How is that being measured?
• What are the particular topics of FOIA requests and litigation that Thee references in her memo that are part of the rationale for this e-mail destruction?
• Is it the Board of Supervisors’ role/duty/place to thwart the public’s access to the record, behavior, and communications of government?
Lastly, I offer at no charge or cost to the county or the taxpayers the service of storing the e-mail data that Thee would have you destroy. I am certain that additional members of the local media would be interested in a collaboration to ensure that such information is not destroyed and is available to the public.
Please table this policy change vote at your December 19 meeting and seriously reconsider the documented motivations behind an effort to make county government less accessible to the public.
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