Is Philly too quick hitting delete key on employee emails?

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Emails have shone a light on some of our public institutions’ darkest recesses.

Former Pennsylvania state Sen. Vince Fumo talked about spending “OPM, a/k/a “other people’s money,” via email. Emails revealed that Penn State officials long knew of complaints against Jerry Sandusky. And who’ll ever forget the email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee?”

In Philadelphia, the city government permanently deletes all emails older than 50 days as a matter of policy unless they are saved by individual employees, NewsWorks has found.

That means any number of emails would not be available if residents requested them under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, and, even with forensic techniques, investigators would likely have a hard time digging them up, too.

Citing the price tag of email storage, city officials said 50 days is a reasonable amount of time to retain emails.

“Storage costs money,” said Shelley Smith, Philadelphia’s city solicitor. “We don’t have the infinite capacity or resources to store every single electronic communication that’s generated in the city system, so just like with paper documents, we have a retention schedule for email.”

But Philadelphia’s email rules have some open government advocates asking: Have city emails ever been tossed out that could have provided the missing link in a criminal investigation, or simply helped inform the public about an important topic?

“I don’t think it’s a good policy,” said Adam Marshall, a fellow at the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Fifty days is not terribly long time…you can think of all kinds of reasons why journalists or historians or just ordinary members of the public would want access to more long-term records.”

Marshall also said storing emails on a server for a long period of time need not be overly pricey. “There are many companies that provide near unlimited storage capacity for emails, and hard drives are pretty cheap nowadays,” he said. “I don’t know why, with very reasonable expenditures, a government couldn’t retain all emails.”

Other government agencies claim to have actually reduced costs since expanding their email storage capacity by moving to a cloud platform.

In 2011, Pittsburgh adopted the cloud-based Google Apps for Government, which provides users with about 30GB of email storage, or 500 times more than they had previously. This has effectively enabled the city to retain all emails permanently, officials said.

James Sloss, the current deputy director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance, said the platform has also saved the city money, though he couldn’t provide an exact figure.

In Philadelphia, the default city employee begins with much less email inbox storage, about 250MB, though that can be increased if necessary, said Mark McDonald, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s spokesman.

McDonald said the city trains “liaisons” in each department to help workers determine which emails they should save. In effect, that leaves it up to individual city employees to decide which emails will be maintained for years to come and therefore will be potentially available under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, and which will be sent to the electronic dustbin of history.

“That’s a lot of discretion given to individual employees who have very little knowledge about the Right-to-Know law,” said Melissa Melewsky, media counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “I’m not sure agencies want to be or should be comfortable with individual employees subjecting the agency to potential liability for not following the law.”

Smith, Philadelphia’s city solicitor, said she knows of no incidents in which an employee has failed to properly save an email that should have been maintained. She said city policy, not the state’s Right-to-Know law, dictates what messages ought to be kept.

“I’m not aware of any concern that has arisen that people are randomly or indifferently or indiscriminately or recklessly discarding email that they need to do their business,” she said, “because it’s there for their business use and they need it.”

However, if such a case did arise and an employee failed to save an email that should have been preserved, it would be deleted after 50 days under the city’s retention policy, and Smith said the city would not have the ability to retrieve it.

NewsWorks asked Philadelphia Inspector General Amy Kurland and Ethics Board Executive Director Shane Creamer if Philadelphia’s email rules have ever caused them problems. Both entities investigate wrongdoing by city employees.

“We have not had a situation yet where we’ve asked for email and it’s not there,” said Kurland. “It certainly could be an issue.”

Kurland said she may not have run into a problem, in part, because the inspector general’s office routinely asks the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology to put a hold on deleting a targeted worker’s emails when they are being investigated.

“There have been instances where city emails are no longer available to the board because they haven’t been archived,” Creamer said. “The retention policy certainly plays a role in that in some cases.”

Both Creamer and Kurland said they would, in theory, support a change to Philadelphia’s email policy that would result in more emails being retained, but stopped short of recommending such a change to city officials.

“I am not familiar with potential cost or technology barriers the city might face with a policy that would go along with higher email retention,” said Creamer.

“I would leave that to the experts,” said Kurland.

Philadelphia’s email policy was established in 1999 and revised in 2009 under Nutter.

Like Pittsburgh, the city of Lancaster effectively retains all emails by utilizing a cloud platform. York Deputy Solicitor Jason Sabol said that city deletes emails from employees’ inboxes after a month, but could not say whether or for how long those messages are stored on a backup server.

Pennsylvania’s executive branch has recently come under fire for its own email retention policy, under which email messages are deleted forever after five days. The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette is suing the state over the matter.

“After five days, the discarded email is permanently deleted from the executive agency’s server and can never be recovered for purposes of responding to a Right-to-Know request,” the newspaper’s September complaint states, “even if the employee improperly deleted an email that in fact was a public record.”

Additional reporting by Emily Previti of Keystone Crossroads.

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