Can public employees just delete emails? No, officials say

To delete or not to delete?

That is the question state employees are confronting about emails they receive on the job.

The question is being raised following an interview abc27 conducted last week with acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq.

Dumaresq was defending former Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, who is still on the payroll at $140,000 a year plus benefits.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report suggested that Tomalis was doing little work for his salary and noted that Tomalis only turned over five emails as his work product for an entire year.

We asked Dumaresq why there were so few emails. Here’s her response:

“If you look at emails – I check mine at the end of each evening. I clear my emails out as does Ron and we only save those emails into files to remember a decision that was made, so there is no email trail for a lot of folks. I couldn’t possibly store all my emails. We delete and cleanse each evening and that’s why there is no emails.”

Many viewers objected to Dumaresq saying she cleansed emails each evening. They called that a violation of the state’s Open Records law.

The state’s Open Records Officer, Terry Mutchler, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Dumaresq’s response didn’t sit right with her, either.

“Any of us in public service who believe it’s OK to delete email after a day, we ought to rethink it,” Mutchler told the newspaper.

Emails may be personal or trivial or seemingly unimportant, but they may also be records, and as such should be properly retained.

“Any email that documents a particular activity or action of state government we consider a record, yes,” said state interim archivist Dave Shoff.

Emails that are records are ultimately stored in the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Shoff says all employees are trained on the importance of email retention and agencies have “records coordinators.” He spoke to abc27 about email policy in general, not specifically Dumaresq’s comment.

“I guess the bottom line is anything that’s in your email is something that can be discovered through the Right to Know Law,” Shoff said. “Employees have to be a little more cautionary on what they want to get rid of and what they want to hang onto. We feel anything that’s documenting what your job is, or what your function is, or what your state agency does should be kept for an amount of time.”

But Open Records is a relatively new law, with relatively new requirements and relatively little oversight. It’s mostly up to employees to police themselves and steer emails to the appropriate place.

“Those records coordinators – there might be one or two for each agency – just don’t have the time to regulate all email that might come into each and every employee,” Shoff concedes.

So, was Dumaresq referring to cleansing her inbox so it doesn’t become too full after sending required emails to the proper spot? Or does she routinely delete them, perhaps inappropriately?

Her spokesman, Tim Eller, told us the department does follow the state’s document retention policy.

Eller said Dumaresq was referring to cleansing emails that are transitory and not related to policies and programs.

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