The County’s plans to delete routine e-mails might be fine—except for the obvious problem.
Thursday, September 30, 2004
The girl reporter suddenly feels the earth move.
No, it isn’t because of anything Mr. Big had done—nor is it a particularly pleasurable experience. In fact, it’s a little scary.
A 6.0 earthquake hits, south of Parkfield, and everyone in the Board of Supervisors meeting on Sept. 28 feels the courthouse rocking. The Supes take a brief recess—hopefully to check on the soundness of the building, thinks the girl reporter—and the rolling stops. Right then she decides to start blaming her sprained ankle—which has forced the girl reporter out of her pumps and into her Pumas—on the quake.
Really, her injury had nothing to do with the ground moving. It was a bad combination of too-high heels and uneven stairs. But an earthquake sounds better than sheer clumsiness.
Earlier in the meeting—pre-quake—the Supes had voted to continue an item that sounded harmless enough: an amendment of the Monterey County Information Technology Appropriate Use Policy.
The girl reporter probably wouldn’t have given this amendment a second thought, had she not received a letter from Monterey attorney Michael Stamp, addressed to the Board of Supervisors.
He wrote on behalf of his clients, The Open Monterey Project (a group whose name pretty much says it all) and retired-school-teacher-turned-County-watchdog Patricia Bernardi, urging the Board to pull the item from the agenda.
“In August 2000, the Monterey County Superior Court issues a permanent injunction against the County of Monterey in the case of Bernardi v. County of Monterey,” writes Stamp. “That case exposed a ghostwriting scandal involving the County Planning Department, County Counsel’s Office, Public Works Department and Board
“The injunction in that case was the most extensive injunction ever issued against a California public agency on these topics. The Court’s Order required certain procedural steps for the County to secure its documents, provide public accountability, and comply with the Public Records Act.”
The end result was Resolution No. 01-093, approved by the Board of Supervisors and designed to help restore trust in the County’s policies, and guarantee that ghostwritten documents were no longer passed off as County papers.
Which brings us to this week’s Supes meeting.
“The Board has calendared for its consent calendar next Tuesday (item 15) a policy that would gut the reforms put into place by Resolution No. 01-093,” Stamp’s letter continues. “It would violate the Public Records Act and CEQA in key respects. If implemented, this policy would allow for wholesale ghostwriting to go undetected, and for corruption to be institutionalized. It is a very bad policy.”
Wow. Well, this letter certainly piques the girl reporter’s interest in the seemingly safe amendment to the County Information Technology Appropriate Use Policy.
So she decides to read the staff report. The intent of the new policy is to “allow the routine destruction of e-mail messages and avoid the cost of long-term storage of e-mail messages.”
County e-mail messages are considered “temporary, non-vital communications,” according to the policy. Once e-mail crosses over into public records territory—”any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency”—then it’s the recipient’s duty to print the e-mail, or save it to a disk, or, in some manner, “convert [it] to other media forms for permanent storage.”
But if the e-mail falls under the “non-vital communications” category—say, an e-mail from County CAO Sally Reed to the girl reporter, asking her where she bought her pewter Mary Jane’s—the new policy says routinely delete it, and do not store it longer than 90 days. Or else: “The Information Technology Department may enforce this provision by periodically accessing individual e-mail accounts on the County’s e-mail servers and deleting all messages being stored there that are greater than 90 days of age.”
Now, if Monterey County was a shining example of integrity and open government, the new policy could be called a mere housekeeping measure, thinks the girl reporter. But we all know that’s not the case.
“What happens with your Supervisor’s calendars?” asks Marjorie Kay, a firebrand from North County who wears a light blue, heavy knit cardigan, jeans and black, Converse high tops (which, the girl reporter hears, are all the rage in Paris right now). “Who stores that? After a controversial article in a weekly newspaper, this comes forward?”
Fellow County watchdog Julie Engell echoes Kay’s worries.
“We need those threads of information that might be destroyed,” she says. “That is my biggest concern.”
Sally Reed, wearing a deep-red jacket, tries to reassure the public: “We are not interested in deleting anyone’s documents.” She explains that e-mail messages continue to accumulate almost at the speed of light, and they are burdening the central IT system.
For a moment the girl reporter turns nostalgic. Reed will retire at the end of the year, and the girl reporter will miss her chic suits and mandarin collars.
County Counsel Charles McKee steps in. Elected officials and county staff have “an obligation to separate out public records from trivial matters,” he says. “E-mail itself is not in and of itself a public record. If you do have an e-mail that is a public record you should print it out.”
But, he ads, all this changes when someone sues the county. “When litigation is filed, preserve all e-mails related to the litigation.”
Supervisor Dave Potter suggests the Board continue the new policy, “for no more than two weeks.” The rest of the Supervisors agree.
And shortly thereafter, it’s time to rock ‘n’ roll.