Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association says permanent email deletions should stop now

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Purchase of an archiving system to preserve any potential public records among deleted state worker email, although a good first step, “does not solve any of the immediate problems,” the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s media counsel said Friday.

Melissa Melewsky said the Pennsylvania Office of Administration, if it can do so technologically, must immediately halt its practice of permanently deleting discarded employee emails from state servers after five days.

Otherwise, the 80,000 employees in 47 agencies across the state’s executive branch who are under the governor’s jurisdiction should be told to refrain from discarding emails on their own until the matter is resolved.

“Either one or both could be helpful in this situation,” Ms. Melewsky said.

About 5 million emails pass through those agencies weekly, and the state has said implementing a system, if it decides to go through with the $2 million to $3 million investment, could take months.

“My obvious concern is public records could be permanently deleted with no method of recovery and no method to even know if those records existed,” Ms. Melewsky said.

Dan Egan, a spokesman for the Office of Administration, could not be reached Friday afternoon for reaction to Ms. Melewsky’s comments. They were made a day after Mr. Egan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the state was considering ways to preserve employee-deleted emails for litigation, discovery and Right to Know purposes.

Mr. Egan did not say how long the state would want to preserve them, though some agencies in the state, including school districts, keep deleted emails a year or longer.

In recent days, the NewsMedia Association and other open-government advocates have expressed concern about permanently deleting those emails after five days, saying it effectively leaves it up to employees who get 80 minutes of records retention training to decide for themselves which correspondences are public records.

The NewsMedia Association and the Arlington, Va.-based Committee for Freedom of the Press have said a five-day window is too short to catch a employee’s mistake and renders an untold number of emails off-limits to any subsequent legal review to determine whether those emails are public records. Compounding the problem, they said, is that the agencies do not routinely search servers to respond to Right to Know requests and instead rely on employees to forward what they believe are public records.

Mr. Egan has said that the training is sufficient and that workers unsure about what must be kept can always seek additional help.

Ms. Melewsky reacted positively to an announcement Thursday by the office of Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi that the state intends in the coming months to review its current law and regulations for records retention so it can make any needed changes. “It sounds like it needs some attention,” Ms. Melewsky said of the law.

Bill Shackner:

First Published August 29, 2014 4:18 PM

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