Don’t delete: Accountability for state officials begins with email

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When Acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq tried to explain why few emails existed in the work record of special gubernatorial adviser Ron Tomalis, she accidentally exposed a major flaw in how state records are retained.

Oops.

Pennsylvania’s open records law includes emails among the documents that are subject to public scrutiny, but the state’s haphazard method of deciding what is kept and what is deleted undercuts the law’s effectiveness.

After Ms. Dumaresq told a television station that education department employees routinely delete emails each evening and her spokesman clarified that she was referring only to those that don’t qualify as public records, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Office of Administration detailed the state’s policy. It was not reassuring to learn that state employees from the governor’s office on down are trained to cull their own emails.

All employees receive about 80 minutes of training in proper records retention, and they are permitted to delete ones they believe are excluded under the law, such as casual conversations. Those deleted emails are permanently expunged after five days, according to the administrative office.

That gives employees entirely too much discretion and the public far too little time to try to access information.

Many government agencies keep email records, even the deleted ones, far longer than Pennsylvania does, and they do it without clogging their computer systems.

While it is true that much of the email generated in any workplace, including the state, is irrelevant, the decision of what can be pitched should not rest with individual employees, and the backup provided for deleted items must be much longer than five days.

The state’s open records law is a good tool for the public, but it can’t be useful unless extensive records are maintained and managed properly in the first place.

Meet the Editorial Board.


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