The things state and local government workers talk about are captured not in a paper trail, but in an email trail. The question facing the Minnesota Legislature is, how long should government workers keep their electronic records before they can delete them, sending those juicy information tidbits to electronic oblivion? The subject of data retention, or how long emails are kept before they're deleted, is far from hammered out.
Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said there's clear historical precedent for how agencies keep paper records, but emails are more toward uncharted territory. What makes them such a tricky subject to deal with is simply the sheer volume of emails that are sent, he said-conversations between government workers that decades ago would take place via phone or in person, now take place entirely via email.
"Now we essentially have those conversations in a tangible form," he said. "The volume is prodigious. That's what's got everybody scratching their heads. How long do you need to keep those? What's good public policy? Nobody really knows."
Most government agencies don't care much about data retention relative to other issues on their radar, Anfinson said.
"This is really obscure stuff," he said. "Although, it's going to become more prominent as this email debate unfolds at the Legislature."
Although the 2017 legislative session began only two weeks ago, lawmakers wasted little time in submitting several bills on the subject. One bill authored by Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, would require governments to keep emails and other electronic communications for at least a year from the day the file is "created or received." A similar bill from Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, requires emails to be kept for a year and a half, but also exempts elected officials from the rule. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL- St. Louis Park, authored the companion Senate bill.
Anfinson said the Latz/Quam bill is a response to prominent controversies over local-level agencies' approach to deleting emails, including the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office practice of deleting emails after only two months. A more common retention period for files both paper and email is 2-5 years, he said.
The idea of making agencies keep it for 18 months is more or less made up out of whole cloth, Anfinson said, adding that even the bill's author admits that.
"Eighteen months is essentially kind of an arbitrary timeline," he said. "It's quite a bit longer than two months. But the honest truth is-and the author acknowledges this-nobody knows for sure what is ideal, perfect, or desirable."
But as rough, untempered ideas pass through the Legislature, they'll be gradually shaped through committee hearings and debate, Anfinson said.
The city of Brainerd's data policy doesn't say anything about how long city workers are supposed to keep emails. City Administrator Jim Thoreen said one of the items on the city's "to-do" list is a discussion with the city attorney regarding his interpretation of state data practices law as to how long Brainerd's emails are supposed to be safe from deletion.
"I'm aware that some cities have said, 'All right, after six months, this stuff is gone,'" Thoreen said. "Well, I have to scratch my head on that one, because I'm not quite so sure that that meets the spirit of the law."
State-level agencies are also grappling with what to do with email. Steve Mikkelson, spokesperson at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Brainerd office, said the agency is in the midst of transferring from paper to electronic file storage. Throughout the past decade, the MPCA has begun using two software programs instead of from the Lektriever, a massive 1970s-era machine which stores paper files on a conveyer belt system. A daring contingent of interns is in the process of scanning in the MPCA's paper files into digital format.
Mikkelson said the agency keeps all of the files on enforcement cases, but they aren't made public until each case is settled. The practice at MPCA is for each worker essentially to decide for themselves how long to keep files, but they're advised to keep everything, even beyond when a particular company they're working with goes out of business.
"For most things, there's not really a set amount of time," Mikkelson said. "Kind of the policy is, keep it as long as you're going to need it, and maybe even longer, because you never know when you may need to go back in time and find things."