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Few localities archive e-mails
July 16, 2006 12:50 am
By EMILY BATTLE
When elected officials use e-mail to talk about government business,
they're creating public documents that have to be saved and made
accessible to the public just like paper records.
Since few localities in the area have established systems for
archiving e-mail, the responsibility for preserving these public
records rests with the officials.
The Free Lance-Star asked town, county, city and school officials in
the area about how they keep track of e-mails among their board members.
In most cases, officials reported having no archiving system specifically for dealing with those e-mails.
Several localities have specific policies dealing with staff and
board members' e-mail use, and most others reported following statewide
policies on retaining records.
Stafford County's policy clearly spells out that government e-mails are not private.
"Treat every E-mail message as something that could end up on the front page of The Free Lance-Star," the policy states.
The Spotsylvania schools reported making School Board members follow
the same policies that school system employees are required to follow
regarding appropriate use of e-mail. Their policies prohibit harassing
and disruptive e-mails, and make clear that school system e-mails are
not a confidential way to communicate.
However, the Spotsylvania schools' system automatically deletes
e-mail after 90 days unless it is archived by the individual, and
schools spokeswoman Sara Branner said, "It is an honor system used by
each School Board member to retain copies of e-mail sent."
It's an honor system in just about all the government entities contacted for this story.
Most of the officials contacted, like Stafford County schools
spokeswoman Valerie Cottongim, said that board members use their own
personal e-mail addresses, and are responsible for keeping track of
their own records.
Westmoreland County officials said members of the Board of Supervisors and School Board seldom use e-mail to communicate.
"Our board does not use e-mail for any type of correspondence," said schools Superintendent Elaine Fogliani.
Fredericksburg's City Council is the only public body in the region
with an archiving system set up specifically for dealing with elected
That system was set up in 2003, after a city resident filed a
request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act for all of the
e-mails that had been sent during a six-month time period by
then-acting City Manager Beverly Cameron, former Mayor Bill Beck and
Councilmen Scott Howson, Tom Fortune, Matt Kelly and Billy Withers.
That request eventually led to a lawsuit filed by former Council
member Gordon Shelton and two city residents, charging that the five
council members' e-mails amounted to illegal meetings to discuss city
The Virginia Supreme Court eventually ruled that the e-mails did not
constitute a meeting, and the charges were thrown out, but the FOIA
request itself taught the city a lesson.
To comply with the request, City Clerk Debbie Naggs had to take more
than 5,000 e-mail printouts home with her, spread them out over her
living-room floor and separate council members' personal e-mail and
spam from the public records.
So in August of 2003, the city created an archive for the council members' e-mails.
It's basically a separate e-mail account accessible only through
Naggs' computer. Council members are given a memorandum about twice a
year, reminding them that it's their responsibility to send any e-mails
that are public records into the archive.
"It's a fabulous system in terms of being efficient," Naggs said.
Members of the public can view the archive by appointment with Naggs,
and although the city hasn't gotten any further FOIA requests as big as
the one that prompted the archive's creation, Naggs said she feels the
city will be able to respond more quickly to any it gets in the future.
Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open
Government, said his group has tried to advocate for more local
governments to set up systems like Fredericksburg's.
"I think Fredericksburg probably has one of the better approaches to
dealing with e-mails than any of the localities in Virginia simply
because of that lawsuit," he said.
But as City Council members point out, the system still depends on
the officials to be aware of which of their e-mails are public records
and to send them to the archive.
Councilwoman Debby Girvan said the system may have too much room for
human error. She said she'd like to find a way to connect all of the
council members' e-mail addresses to the city's server, so that their
e-mails would automatically be retained at City Hall.
"That way you're not worried about missing something," she said.
And the archive does not replace council members' own personal systems of retaining public records.
Councilman Matt Kelly said he places the archive's address in the
"carbon copy" field of his e-mails when he creates or responds to them,
but that he retains every single e-mail he receives about city business
on his home computer, and archives them by topic on a yearly basis.
"I have never destroyed or deleted an e-mail that I have received that has anything to do with public business," he said.
Officials in localities that don't have systems set up to retain
e-mails have found their own ways of trying to stay in compliance with
Hap Connors, chairman of the Spotsylvania County Board of
Supervisors, said he tries to avoid handling county business and
constituent correspondence on his personal e-mail account.
"When I respond [to constituent e-mails], I ask them to use my
official county e-mail. I alert them to the fact that I have a county
address," he said. "I [carbon copy] myself on the official address, so
that all correspondence after that goes through the official e-mail
Connors said he wasn't sure what the county's policy was about retaining such e-mails.
"I imagine it's part of the public record," he said.
Maria Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of
Information Advisory Council, said she encourages elected officials to
think of e-mail the same way they would think of paper correspondence.
"Somehow I think people are overwhelmed by just the sheer volume of
e-mail," she said. "The first hurdle is recognition that e-mails have
to be retained."
She said a good archiving system can keep local governments from
having to spend several hours sorting through e-mails to fulfill
Freedom of Information Act requests. She offered three suggestions for
keeping electronic correspondence manageable.
First, she encouraged officials to always carbon-copy the town clerk
or another administrator on their e-mails, so that person becomes the
repository for the correspondence. She said administrators should
create distinct electronic folders for individual officials and topics.
And if they're still confused, Everett suggested: "Print it to paper. You know what to do with paper."
Landon said he thinks governments are still in a "transition period"
of learning to properly handle elected officials' e-mails. But he said
there may be a natural check on the system.
"All it takes is one maverick member of a city council or a board of
supervisors who saves all the string," he said. "Then the question will
be raised, 'Why don't the others have them?'"
Staff reporters Jeff Branscome, Meghann Cotter, Frank Delano, Donnie
Johnston, Robin Knepper, Melissa Nix and George Whitehurst contributed
to this story.
Copyright 2006 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.