The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has launched a new policy of deleting its e-mails after just 30 days, raising concerns over what some view as shrinking transparency and the destruction of public data.

Until Sept. 1, when the Sheriff's Office changed the policy, its e-mails had been kept indefinitely.

"I'm definitely troubled by it," said Tony Webster, a self-employed Minneapolis software engineer who has fought the Sheriff's Office for e-mail records. "More and more, government just wants to limit their exposure and just deleting stuff is one way. This is just going to keep happening."

The Sheriff's Office change serves to usher in a countywide policy, by administrative order starting in 2017, under which the remainder of Hennepin County e-mails will be automatically deleted after six months. From the county attorney's office to the County Board, departments will gradually implement the new policy starting Jan. 1.

Up to now the county, which officials say has 210 million e-mails in its accounts and gets 6 million more every month, has also kept e-mails indefinitely.

County leaders said that the policy change, announced to staffers on Tuesday, will save $2 million next year in e-mail storage and help the state's most populous county manage a growing mass of e-mails by deleting unnecessary ones and keeping only those deemed needed for the official record.

St. Paul similarly changed its policy in 2015 when it reduced the period it kept e-mails from three years to six months, a period that some said was too short. In Carver County, e-mails are kept for six years, while Anoka County's e-mails are deleted after three months. In Ramsey County, there's no policy on e-mail retention, but correspondence between departments is kept for three years.

"We really are afraid of what's going on," said Don Gemberling, spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information. "It's bad public policy. Across the country, when you give public employees the ability to [delete their own e-mails], they get rid of stuff that's embarrassing."

The coalition is pushing state lawmakers to expand the definition of official records in state statute to clarify that e-mails are indeed official records, which would force government agencies to preserve more of them.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office declined an interview request Tuesday, but said in a statement that the countywide changes will allow the county to be better data stewards, reduce costs and ensure "that all public law enforcement and official business records are properly retained in accordance with relevant Minnesota statutes."

The Sheriff's Office said it implemented the 30-day policy four months before the rest of the county because it has fewer personnel to train. It said that the more restrictive policy is the same as that for other data it holds on to, such as video footage that isn't part of an active investigation.

Hennepin County Chief Information Officer Jerry Driessen added that the county's elected public officials — County Board commissioners, Attorney Mike Freeman and Sheriff Rich Stanek — are free to set their own policies.

For the rest of the county, starting in 2017, e-mails will move after three months to an archive folder and then be permanently deleted after six months unless an employee moves them to a folder to save for three years. The size of e-mail attachments also will be more limited.

Rising e-mail volume, costs

In fall 2011, county leaders started discussing an e-mail retention policy as it switched to Microsoft and reviewed storage costs. Since then, the county has researched the policies of other governments and all county staffers have been trained in data practices law.

"It's a best practice," Driessen said. "It becomes a beast you can't afford to feed."

County officials said that e-mail storage costs have risen 30 percent every year since 2013. The county will spend $3 million this year on storage, a cost expected to drop to $1 million next year under the new policy.

"It got to be staggering," said Judy Regenscheid, the assistant county administrator of operations. "It's a significant cost savings to the taxpayer."

Most data requests involve official records such as contracts, not e-mails, she said. Like other counties, Hennepin has seen an increase in data requests in recent years, with the number doubling from 2015 to 2016.

But for citizens who file records requests often, like Rich Neumeister, e-mails are valuable in showing how public employees make decisions.

"They're destroying documents and e-mails that can tell a lot about an agency," Neumeister said. "What risk is there? Because we discover something embarrassing? Because we discover something illegal?"

He said he thinks the policy change is a direct response to data requests from people like Webster and him.

A request on technology

Webster filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings after making a public records request last year of the Sheriff's Office to see if the department was using technology to track people through their faces, fingerprints and irises.

A judge agreed that the county's four months of delays, improperly redacted records, inadequate answers and other behavior violated the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The judge fined the county $300 and ordered it to pay up to $5,000 for Webster's attorney's fees, as well as refund $950 of the filing fee and pay $1,000 in court costs.

The county has appealed the decision, saying that Webster's request required the electronic search of more than 7 million e-mails for 20 separate terms and wasn't a proper data request. Four media organizations, including the Star Tribune, filed amicus briefs in October in support of Webster's position.

The new Sheriff's Office policy won't affect Webster's case, since the records he's requested have been preserved. But he said he still worries that future requests for information will be more limited.

"E-mails describe what government is doing," he said. "I understand the government needs to have retention policies on all data to be able to manage it effectively, but 30 days is too short. I feel like it's reducing accountability."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Twitter: @kellystrib