The state has begun exploring ways it might archive emails that routinely are deleted by its 80,000 executive branch employees so those documents would be preserved for litigation and Right to Know reviews, a spokesman said late Thursday.
Word of a potential new system came as an aide to Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi announced plans to review Pennsylvania’s statute and hodgepodge of regulations governing records retention to see what changes may be needed.
An archiving system, if purchased, would cover 47 agencies under the governor’s jurisdiction, said Dan Egan, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Office of Administration. Details on how it would work, the length of time those emails would be preserved and exactly how long a system could take to install were not available, though Mr. Egan said it probably would take months. He did not know precisely when planning started.
“I just learned today that we are looking into these systems,” he said.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Sunday that individual state employees who regularly are encouraged to pare emails from their inboxes, in effect, are deciding for themselves which of their emails are public records. They have that power because deleted emails now are backed up on state servers for only five days, then are permanently deleted, meaning those documents are excluded from any legal reviews when the public seeks documents under the state’s Right to Know Law that would shed light on government actions.
An archiving system, which Mr. Egan said would probably cost $2 million to $3 million yearly, potentially addresses one of the concerns raised by open-government advocates who were quoted for the Post-Gazette story.
But the state does not appear to have plans to address — at least immediately — the other concerns raised by those groups.
Mr. Egan said he knew of no plan to change a practice across the executive branch of asking employees to forward what they believe are public records, rather than routinely searching servers when a Right to Know request is received. He said the agency will continue to allow employees who receive 80 minutes of records retention training to decide what emails can be discarded, and it has no interim plan to preserve those deleted emails beyond five days during the months that an archiving system would be developed.
He said the goal of archiving would be to “facilitate the retrieval of email for purposes of Right to Know, discovery or litigation.”
Mr. Pileggi, R-Delaware, author of the state’s Right to Know Law, was asked his reaction Wednesday to the executive branch’s approach to email retention including five-day permanent deletions, and his spokesman, Erik Arneson, responded late Thursday.
“An effective records retention law is important to ensuring that the public has appropriate access to government records,” Mr. Arneson said via email. “Over the next several months, we will review the current statute and regulations to see what changes might be needed.”
Emails became an issue in recent weeks when Carolyn Dumaresq, acting state Education Department secretary, tried to explain why her agency could produce only five emails written in a year’s time by Gov. Tom Corbett’s special adviser for higher education, Ron Tomalis. Mr. Tomalis resigned the $139,542 position two weeks after a Post-Gazette story July 27 that — using the Right to Know Law — cited his light email activity, a largely empty work calendar and phone logs showing barely more than one call a day for 12 months.
Ms. Dumaresq initially told the Post-Gazette the scant emails might be the result of a preference by Mr. Tomalis for face-to-face interaction. However, days after the July 27 story appeared, she told WHTM-TV of Harrisburg the lack of a paper trail likely was the result of a practice across her agency of deleting each day emails of short-term or no value.
The Office of Administration provides technology support to state agencies, excluding the Legislature, row offices and the courts.
Mr. Egan said permanently deleting emails from servers five days after employees discard them was implemented in 1999, when a practice of individual agencies maintaining their own email servers was replaced with a consolidated approach now overseen by the Office of Administration. The decision, planning and design probably occurred years earlier, Mr. Egan said, noting that there are “no records of this decision from over a decade and a half ago.”
He said the five-day period was recommended by the state’s vendor, Microsoft, for disaster recovery purposes and was not intended as a record retention practice. Mr. Egan said the Right to Know Law dictates what records are public but does not address how long records must be kept.
Mr. Egan said prior to 1999, emails were largely intra-agency and were viewed “more as a telephone conversation than a document or record … so in most cases they were not being backed up at all.”
Officials with groups including the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association expressed concern about the five-day deletions and giving employees such discretion whether a record is public, saying even the best-of-intentioned workers may have different interpretations. They expressed concern that an untold number of emails were being excluded from review.
Mr. Egan said about 5 million emails pass through the 47 agencies a week.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter @BschacknerPG.