January 18, 2008
And the Sheriff's office gets in the email deletion act

It's funny, isn't it, how so many of our government agencies have decided that retaining email is a liability for themselves?

When he turned on his computer at the Harris County Jail this week, Sgt. Richard Newby was greeted with a flashing message announcing that all e-mail automatically would be deleted after 14 days.

Items such as personnel rosters, employee work schedules and tasks from his commanders had been wiped clean from his e-mail account.

"It was a little unsettling. We had no warning," Newby said this week. "I was looking for stuff, and it was gone."

The new policy, which went into effect last weekend, is intended to help the sheriff's office ease a severe shortage of computer storage space, officials said.

The fact that the policy took effect amid an office e-mail scandal that forced District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal to abandon his re-election campaign is a coincidence, sheriff's Lt. John Martin said.

Ayup. I'll just say "What Grits said", and leave it at that.

Unsolicited junk e-mails and personal correspondence can be deleted and purged from a system immediately, said Tim Nolan, a records specialist at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. By law, the commission sets minimum standards for record retention.

"Blanket deletion of all e-mails probably isn't a good idea because it probably wouldn't comply with our guidelines for retention of records," Nolan said.

Austin lawyer Bill Aleshire, a volunteer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said he has noticed more local and state entities are enacting e-mail destruction policies.

The policies, he said, violate portions of the Texas Government Code if officials are deleting e-mails that relate to official county business.

"People under the Texas Public Information Act have a right to access to public information," Aleshire said. "If government agencies are destroying that information, they're interfering with the rights under the public information act."

Gov. Rick Perry's office has begun deleting e-mails every seven days, and a number of school districts delete e-mails every two weeks. None of the policies has been challenged by lawsuits, Aleshire said.

He also expressed doubt about arguments that deleting e-mails is primarily done to save electronic storage space.

"You don't have enough storage capacity to keep all the records when the records retention policy says you should, then you should get a bigger computer," Aleshire said. "Storage on computers is amazingly cheap."

Indeed. Further, there are other ways of minimizing server space requirements, such as encouraging employees to archive some of their mail to CD or DVD. Disk space was an issue five years ago. It just isn't one now.

KTRK did a story on this on Thursday, noting as the Chron did that the County Attorney is now working with the Sheriff to determine the legality of their new policy. I know it's usually easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission, but you'd think in the case of government records, the reverse would be true. Regardless, they've since obtained a restraining order forbidding the implementation of this policy at this time.

"We believe that the policy that was implemented on January 9 is contrary to the Texas Public Information Act, which is a vitally important statute which gives citizens the right to have access to public documents and we feel it is clearly contrary to state law," said KTRK attorney John Edwards.


In the meantime, the temporary restraining order goes into effect immediately. There's a hearing coming up on January 25. We'll be there for that. But for now, the sheriff's department can no longer delete emails that are more than two weeks old.

It would be nice to get some clarity on this, wouldn't it? I guess it'll ultimately be the courts that sort it out, unless the Lege decides to take it up.

Finally, on a tangential note, here (Word doc) is an update from John Washburn on his ongoing battle with the Governor and that office's email retention policy. The more fronts on which this is fought, the better.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 18, 2008 to Local politics

Since it is a matter of public record, I should be capable of reading (and saving) any and all government e-mail over the internet as it is being keyed in. The technology is there and it is public. Certain correspondence should not be public, but most of it should be.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on January 18, 2008 9:56 PM

all public meetings should be webcast too

Posted by: Charles Hixon on January 18, 2008 10:23 PM

as it happens, Richard Newby is the President of the Harris County Deputies Organization (Sheriff's Union)

Posted by: Loren Jackson on January 18, 2008 11:02 PM

Indeed. Further, there are other ways of minimizing server space requirements, such as encouraging employees to archive some of their mail to CD or DVD. Disk space was an issue five years ago. It just isn't one now.

For some organizations, maybe not. For others -- especially large organizations that don't invest in IT modernization -- it may be a very real issue.

You do realize that many government employees are using old machines that may not even HAVE a cd burner (let alone a dvd burner), and some of those employees may not have a clue how to burn such media anyway. So that's not really a practical solution.

My (private sector) employer recently went to an email vault system that automatically compresses and archives emails of a certain age. That's probably the sort of system that most organizations subject to Freedom of Information requests are going to have to adopt.

Posted by: Kevin Whited on January 18, 2008 11:19 PM

It's true that the Sheriff's Department may have older equipment. But changing to a two-week purge policy from a six-month purge is a pretty drastic step, and it's one they undertook without consulting the County Attorney's office to see if they were in compliance with state law first.

It's also the case that Harris County isn't exactly in dire financial straits, as the recent property tax cut attests. If storage space were at such a premium for the Sheriff's Department, they should have raised the issue to the county. Even for 4000 employees, sufficient server storage would not have been that costly, especially in the context of the county's budget.

So while I take your point, I remain dubious of the actions taken. I think there was a better way.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on January 19, 2008 8:54 AM
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