People who want an inside view of Gov. Mark Dayton’s office regularly ask to read his e-mail.
Of the 51 public record requests received by Dayton’s office since the beginning of last year, 32 mentioned e-mails or correspondence.
“A good portion of our requests are for e-mails,” said Cumah Blake, Dayton’s legal counsel.
So the governor’s employees are encouraged to hang onto their e-mails, right?
In fact, the policy of the office calls for keeping only those e-mail messages that are “records of official transactions.” Everything outside of that narrow category can be deleted at will.
It’s a policy that dates to 2002, when Jesse Ventura occupied the governor’s office. Regardless of their partisan differences, Dayton (DFLer), Ventura (Independence Party) and Tim Pawlenty (Republican) shared the same willingness to erase the internal conversations within their office.
“It’s been one of those policies that have just been passed down,” Blake said.
One of the guiding principles here, strangely enough, is a 1968 Minnesota Supreme Court decision, Kottschade vs. Lundberg. It was about a property owner’s efforts to get hold of a tax assessor’s field notes. In saying those notes didn’t have to be turned over, the justices warned that defining public records too broadly “would fill official archives to overflowing.”
That ruling came six years before the passage of the state’s public records law and at least four years before e-mail was even invented. Back then, images of a government office drowning in useless papers maybe still had some legitimacy.
E-mail storage isn’t exactly crippling government servers. Yet that idea is trotted out to justify erasing all manner of significant communications, which, if you ask for them in time, are public records.
So why should government keep its e-mails?
Ask the people who want to read them.
America Rising, a Republican opposition research outfit based in Arlington, Va., made four requests of Dayton’s office seeking e-mail messages between the governor’s office and several environmental advocates and groups, the White House and the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
“Requesting these e-mails is standard operating procedure for us,” said Jeff Bechdel, a spokesman for America Rising. “You can end up getting information through the records that you wouldn’t get through a spokesman or other avenue.”
Bryan Strawser of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus made two requests over the past year seeking e-mails related to gun control groups and to a recent visit of gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords.
“We can see a lot of the back and forth in how decisions are made,” Strawser said.
That’s especially important these days, when government employees are often terrified to speak publicly for fear of straying from the official line.
The requests from America Rising and the Gun Owners Caucus did not reveal much. It’s impossible to know whether any relevant e-mails had been deleted before they asked for them. Blake said that when a request comes in, she goes directly to the IT staff to search for those e-mails. An employee also has permission to look at the governor’s AOL e-mail address, which he uses for government business, she said.
Minneapolis cannabis activist Kurtis Hanna, who also goes by Jah Love, made two requests of the governor’s office. From other agencies, he said, he obtained copies of e-mails that had apparently already been deleted by the governor’s staff.
“We should be able to be reading the communications that are occurring within our government,” Hanna said. “How can we be an engaged citizenry” without them? he asked.
Hanna pointed out that the government reads our e-mail all the time. Just last week, several news organizations reported that Yahoo was scanning all of its users’ e-mails for supposed terrorist messages, to comply with a secret court order.
So is it too much to ask for Dayton and any future governor to lay off the trash button so we can see what they’re up to?
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.