The Purge: Part 1

It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end. -Ursala K. LeGuin

I'd like to take you on a reporting journey that I'm beginning today, called "The Purge". With some reader interaction, perhaps this can become like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels (remember those?*).

Here we go.

There's an interesting showdown going on Missouri between Republican Governor Matt Blunt (US House Minority Whip Roy Blunt's son) and Attorney General Jay Nixon. Blunt is defending his office's routine deletion of office emails, even though he acknowledged "emails often are a public record," in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The Missouri AG said that the policy violates not only the state's record-preservation law but also their Sunshine Law, which provides public access to government records. More from the Post-Dispatch:

Nixon asserted that actions of the governor’s staff appeared to be “an anathema to openness in government. This is public business, these are public records, this is what we do,” declared Nixon, a Democrat who is challenging Blunt for governor in 2008.

Blunt, in explaining his staff's intentions, said with a chuckle, "I think people are trying to have a clear and manageable in-box. That's what they're trying to do."

Overall, Blunt offered conflicting views of how e-mails should be treated under the state's Sunshine Law. He said the law is directed more at agencies and institutions, than at individuals.

In the case of e-mails, he said, "Once requested (under the Sunshine Law), and if they exist, they're definitely a public record."

It seems like he suggests here that emails don't need to be retained unless they are requested BEFORE the routine deletion.

That brings us back home to Texas. The routine email purging happens in the Texas governor's office, too.

"Our emails get automatically deleted every 7 days," said Governor Perry's spokesman Robert Black. "We kept the same policy and schedule as Governor Bush."

This isn't illegal. I've learned from conversations with various attorneys that Texas doesn't have a records preservation law that speaks to this specifically -- and the TPIA doesn't forbid the purging of emails. Emails are considered a public record; but only if requested before they're deleted into the cyber-abyss.

So this opens up questions about whether emails ought to be kept -- not just for the sunshine reason, but for historical purposes. (I mean, those LBJ phone calls are interesting!) Is it good policy to routinely delete official communication in public offices, when email is the way most of us communicate?

I put the question to State Senator Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, this afternoon. He's the Chairman of the Senate Jurisprudence committee, which oversees public information legislation.

"This is case of first impression with me, but it sounds like something that we oughta have hearings about, what the practice is government-wide... Arguments for keeping the emails for a certain period of time and arguments against it, for whatever reason," Wentworth said.

That's where the story ends, for now. I've requested copies of the email retention schedule and policy from various offices of state officeholders, including the Governor. I'm also looking into what major cities are doing with their official emails... just to see what the practice is, like Senator Wentworth was asking.

Originally, I wanted to wait on all of the information to come in and put it all together for one mega-post. But it seems the information will be trickling in, so we'll report it one thing at a time, and if you have questions or angles you think we should take this, please weigh-in.

*One time, in fifth grade, I actually wrote my own Choose Your Own Adventure tale. The waste of wide-ruled looseleaf was tremendous.

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