In just a few short days, when the calendar rolls from February 28th to March 1st, yet another batch of public e-mails – from the mundane and forgettable to the sensitive or possibly critical – will disappear forever from Florida lawmakers’ files.
Is this really happening in Florida, where we pride ourselves on “Government in the Sunshine” and where the first executive order signed by Governor Charlie Crist protects open access to government records?
Indeed, it is happening here, and for no good reason. First and foremost, depending on the nature of the e-mail or document, many state agencies have already created detailed records retention laws that govern how certain public records are stored for the public. This is a good start, and could easily serve as a starting point for similar legislative policies. And while the policy of deleting e-mails en masse is most likely not illegal, and surely not the intention of lawmakers, it should not be the test for our elected legislators. Instead, the test should remain one of transparency and availability, particularly when both are so easily and economically achieved.
Second, the purging of e-mail messages is hardly practical. As a host of politicians felled by retrieved e-mails can attest, there is no such thing as deleting an e-mail. Like kudzu in the south, e-mails are forever: not only does the sender retain a copy, electronic fingerprints exist in virtually all systems, including the recipient’s server.
But above all, the retention of e-mail and other electronic records is just good business, especially for our state legislators. The technology to save e-mails exists, and is affordable. Back-up procedures are inexpensive, and in the long run they offer real protection to the state. Rather than risk expensive retrieval costs, the state, as well as most businesses, can head off risk by instituting common sense practices.
Without question, Florida’s lawmakers should take the lead in rectifying this gross oversight. But issues of e-mail and electronic communication liability are not limited to government organizations, and indeed, leaders from all walks of life can learn from this circumstance. Whether public or private sector, companies both large or small can become involved in litigation resulting from the perceived eradication, or “cleansing” of electronic files. No matter how you look at it, the transparent and organized management of e-mail and other electronic records is just good business.
For the sake of Florida’s hard earned reputation as a “The Sunshine State”, let’s put this issue to rest. Save our e-mails. It’s as easy as one click of the mouse.
Leonard Dietzen, co-author of an online e-mail training course found at www.EmailPitfalls.com
, and a partner with the law firm Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, represents private and public sector employers in all aspects of labor and employment law.