“Is e-mail a public document that needs to be preserved?”

That question appears in an April 1994 edition of the Star Tribune. A generation and zillions of government e-mails later, Minnesota and many other states still haven’t answered the question.

Attorneys for Hennepin County are currently fighting a Minneapolis man’s request for copies of the sheriff’s e-mails all the way to the appellate courts, arguing that it shouldn’t have to search through them using keywords.

Meanwhile, Hennepin Sheriff Rich Stanek enacted a new policy to delete all his office’s e-mails after 30 days. The rest of the county will trash e-mails after six months. Similar mass deletions of e-mails already happen in the governor’s office, the city of St. Paul and other agencies.

In response to this, some Minnesota legislators — whose own e-mail is exempt from the public records law — have suggested forcing government agencies to hold onto their e-mails for longer, so the public has a better chance to read them.

“I understand it’s expensive to store all this data. I get that,” said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who chairs the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee. “The fact of the matter is, it’s created by government and the Minnesota Data Practices Act says you’ve got to keep it. … There could be a lot of shenanigans that take place if you’re destroying data after 30 days.”

Through all this wrangling, it is good to know that it’s happening just about everywhere else in America. We should also take solace that Democratic and Republican politicians alike are fighting pitched battles to avoid letting you read their e-mail.

In Chicago, Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel released 2,700 e-mails from a personal account last month to settle a lawsuit by a nonprofit watchdog group, the Better Government Association.

With the settlement, Emanuel agreed to forward all e-mails dealing with city business to his public account, the association reported. No bombshells have emerged so far. Emanuel has until Jan. 27 to produce an index of e-mails and text messages in a separate lawsuit by the Chicago Tribune.

The Indiana Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon on Republican governor and Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s efforts to withhold e-mails from a labor lawyer.

The e-mails concern Indiana’s decision to sue the Obama administration over its immigration policies. Pence’s attorneys have argued that the court would violate the separation of powers if it forced the governor’s office to release records, according to the Associated Press.

Perhaps the most dramatic turnaround comes from the Sunshine State. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, announced in 2012 that he would share his entire in-box on a website titled “Project Sunburst.”

Then people noticed the website featured only positive messages from supporters. Scott’s office said it was protecting the privacy of some who e-mailed the governor.

Things got uglier as media organizations and others filed lawsuits against Scott, accusing him of violating the open meetings law while ousting a commissioner, and of using private e-mail accounts to hide the messages.

Scott agreed in 2015 to settle the open meetings law case for $55,000, and later that year, he and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi agreed to pay $700,000 to settle the lawsuit over e-mails.

Project Sunburst still exists, but you’re not likely to find any of Scott’s e-mails on that website. In 2015, Scott’s office told the Orlando Sentinel he wasn’t going to send e-mails any more, except to keep in touch with his family.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.