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New City Email System Still Dumps Records After 45 Days

By Erica C. Barnett February 24, 2010

City Council members and staff are in the process of transitioning onto a new system for retaining email records, called Mimosa. Unfortunately, the new system—like the old one, which I wrote about in 2003—still includes one fairly significant structural flaw: It automatically deletes all emails after 45 days, unless the city employee specifically moves them into an "archive" folder.

City staff are required to retain all emails that contain "substantive" information that's relevant to their job functions, like meeting minutes and policy discussions, says city records manager Jennifer Winkler. In contrast, emails that are "transitory" in nature—things like a memo from one council member's scheduler to another's—don't have to be retained.

Where it gets murky (and potentially problematic) is when an email doesn't contain any substantive policy information, but still might be of interest to the public. For (completely hypothetical) example: If Richard Conlin and Mike O'Brien decide to meet behind Tom Rasmussen's back to plot strategy on a bill in Rasmussen's committee, and if they set up the secret meeting by email, is that a substantive message or a transitory one? According to Winkler, probably the latter.

"From a content point of view, it's not necessarily [something that should be retained], because there's no policy decision being made, no financial determination being made, no contract negotiations being discussed," Winkler says. "Now, should you send that type of email? No, but there's nothing in there that really documents" anything substantive. "From a records management point of view, it would not need to be retained."

From a reporter's perspective, that's somewhat disturbing, given that much of what we try to find out consists of who met with who and who knew what when. Just last week, in fact, I did a whole story (about former McGinn aide Chris Bushnell's role as a powerful shadow figure in the mayor's office long before he was officially on the payroll) that revolved around those very questions.

...

In other public disclosure-related news, city attorney Pete Holmes just got back to me about the city's policy regarding disclosure of text messages. (As I reported yesterday, the city does not retain text messages by elected officials—a loophole in the law requiring public access to all city communications.) His response:

“Yes, text messages can be subject to both the Public Records Act and the Records Retention Act; as with emails, the content of the text message controls whether it’s subject to disclosure and whether (and for how long) it must be retained. It is up to the individual to determine if the record has retention value."
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