Staying vigilant

Published 10:20 pm Friday, January 16, 2009

By Staff
for open government
In one of his final acts as governor, Mike Easley “corrected” something that needed correcting.
Easley, who left office Saturday after eight years as the Old North State’s chief executive, signed an order requiring that all e-mails in the state’s executive-branch agencies be stored for a minimum of 10 years. The order also bars state employees from deleting e-mails received for 24 hours so they may be preserved.
Easley’s order, which he signed Friday, was in response to a lawsuit against him filed by several media organizations. The lawsuit centered around the deletion of e-mails by state agencies, e-mails the media groups consider public record. The lawsuit is pending.
Last spring, the media organizations accused Easley and his administration of violating North Carolina’s laws regarding public records through the ‘‘systematic deletion, destruction or concealment’’ of e-mail messages.
Easley’s order and recommendations by state panel that took a look at the e-mail situation could be modified by new Gov. Beverly Perdue. If she makes any alterations, they should be in the interest of open government and preserving public records.
When conducting the public’s business, e-mails from and to state agencies or from a state employee to others should be saved as public records, at least for some period of time before being allowed to be deleted.
Signing that order was a good thing, but it should have been signed sooner. Better yet, there should have been no reason to sign such an order. Easley should have had in place a policy that required such e-mails to be saved for a specified period of time. When the state begins deleting e-mails, people are going to wonder if the state is trying to hide something.
At the root of the lawsuit are accusations made by Debbie Crane, who was a spokeswoman at the Department of Health and Human Services when she made the accusations. Crane accused the governor’s press office of directing public-relations employees at Cabinet-level agencies to delete e-mails sent to and from the governor’s office. Subsequently, Crane was fired.
Easley said there was no evidence that occurred.
The panel members Easley assembled to look into the e-mail matter suggested storing the e-mails for five years, according to the AP report, in part to save money and because they doubt that importance of keeping so many e-mails that are of little importance. Easley stuck with the 10-year limit.
As for the panel questioning the importance of saving e-mails of little importance, who decides which e-mails are important enough to keep and which ones are not important enough to keep? The panel’s concerns have some merit, but so does saving public records.
The estimated cost for storing e-mails for five years is $375,000, according to the AP report. Installing a searchable e-mail archive system would cost another $1 million for each year covered, according to state officials.
The costs seem worth the investment. The implementation of such a system should be further explored to determine if its benefits of helping provide open government would outweigh its costs.
It’s a cost that most North Carolina residents likely would be willing to pay in order to ensure more open government.
When it comes to the public’s business, the cost is too great if that business is not done in the open. North Carolinians cannot afford for state business to be conducted in the dark.