Hennepin County’s move to shorten the amount of time it keeps e-mails could be challenged by the Minnesota Legislature sometime next year.

After the recent announcement that the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office is saving many e-mails sent and received by its staff for only 30 days — and that other county offices will soon save them for only 180 days — one lawmaker said he plans to introduce a bill aimed at clarifying records-retention rules. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he’s concerned that increasingly weak record-keeping policies could limit the public’s ability to learn about how their government is operating.

“The Freedom of Information Act has been a critical tool for citizen and press engagement with their governmental units,” he said in a news release, issued shortly after the county’s new policies were detailed in a Star Tribune article. “Preservation of digital documents is essential for a responsive press to shine light on internal practices.”

Latz said he’s still researching the issue and refining his plans, but he believes 30 days is too little time for an agency to keep public records before destroying them. The Sheriff’s Office policy, which is already being used, calls for e-mails to be deleted after 30 days unless they are “deemed necessary for a legitimate law enforcement/business purpose.” E-mails kept longer are to be destroyed once an investigation, claim or other legal matter has been completed.

In its policy, the Sheriff’s Office says its e-mail system is not designed for long-term storage. The county, which will implement its new data retention policy for other departments in 2017, cites cost as a factor limiting how much data it holds onto.

But Latz said e-mail messages might not become relevant until months after they are sent.

“The ability for the public to hold government agencies accountable is diminished as a result,” he said.

The senator said he’s also not convinced that the cost of storage should be the primary reason for a change in policy. County officials have previously kept e-mails indefinitely. They say they have about 210 million e-mails stored in county accounts and receive about 6 million more each month.

Policies vary widely

Around the state, other agencies’ policies vary considerably, with some requiring e-mails to be kept for a few months and others for years.

Latz said he expects to find allies in the Legislature on both sides of the aisle. One may be Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who has a long-standing interest in public data and privacy issues. Limmer said he’s interested in further exploring how long agencies hold onto records, what type of records they keep and why they need to destroy them after a specific period of time.

As chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, Limmer said he wants to bring the topic back to the forefront. While he said it’s often been difficult to get his colleagues in the Legislature interested in the specifics of public records policy, he’s hopeful that some of the people elected for the first time in November might bring some new perspectives.

“[Latz] is noticing the same thing that I am, and it’s that with the advancement of technology — and it’s moving in quantum leaps — we are a little behind the times at keeping up with record keeping, and which records do we keep,” Limmer said.

In the House, Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, chairwoman of the Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, said she’s planning to meet with Limmer to discuss his concerns — and she agrees with Latz that a 30-day retention period is too short for public e-mails.

She also wants the Legislature to explore rules about personnel data, such as what should be publicly available after a public school employee leaves a job. Her other top records priorities include a discussion about whether attendance records for public officials using private suites at U.S. Bank Stadium should be public.

 

Star Tribune staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report.