State workers may get public records training

Panelists balk at keeping all e-mail

Staff WriterMay 9, 2008 

— Members of a panel formed by Gov. Mike Easley appear headed toward approval of a plan that would require training on the public records law for most state employees and improvements to government e-mail servers that would archive messages for a number of years.

At issue is whether all e-mail would be archived automatically or state employees would be allowed to decide which of their e-mail should be preserved for posterity and which should be zapped.

Though news reports of the administration's public information officers -- and even Easley himself -- trashing public records triggered the panel's creation, several of those the governor appointed to review the matter said Thursday that state employees should be trusted to do the right thing.

The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and eight other North Carolina news organizations sued Easley last month over his administration's "systematic deletion, destruction or concealment of e-mail messages sent from or received by the Governor's Office."

"None of us wants to be the headline that says 'Miscreant Employee Deletes E-Mails,'" said panel member Mac McCarley, Charlotte's city attorney.

However, among the things McCarley said might be burdensome to state employees is a requirement they complete the proposed public records training program, which would take less than an hour of time online. A draft proposal circulated Thursday would leave it to the heads of state agencies to decide which employees under their supervision would be required to complete the training.

The state's Public Records Law makes no distinction between electronic records such as e-mail and other types of documents, regardless of what they are written or recorded on. Still, at least some on the panel continue to insist that e-mail is different from other kinds of records.

"Essentially, e-mail exists somewhere between paper and the telephone," said Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor.

Guillory worked as a reporter and editor at The N&O from 1972 to 1997, an era before reporters routinely filed requests for the e-mail of government officials.

Now a state employee, Guillory quizzed representatives of the N.C. Press Association about what should be considered a public record.

"A Post-it note?" Guillory asked.

Rick Thames, editor of The Charlotte Observer, responded that he remembered an occasion where two public officials had scribbled plans on a cocktail napkin.

News media representatives, including the N.C. Association of Broadcasters, have urged the use of off-the-shelf digital archiving systems that could preserve all e-mail sent or received by employees. Other states and many large corporations already use such systems.

Members of the e-mail committee repeatedly decried instituting such a system here, saying it would inevitably capture spam or personal messages that don't pertain to public business.

Steve Riley, a senior editor at The N&O, provided the panel with a copy of a May 2001 e-mail exchange between then-Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and her administrative assistant to illustrate why some journalists are skeptical of assurances that public employees almost always follow the law.

Phipps, who was later convicted of accepting bribes and sent to federal prison, described a morning spent listening to "oldies" and deleting e-mail.

"Took forever because you can delete the trash box at one swoop, but apparently" each "sent" item must be deleted separately, Phipps wrote. "Just think it's a good Joe Neff measure."

Neff is a reporter for The N&O.

The exchange was retrieved through a public records request only because Phipps' assistant deleted it from her inbox but forgot to delete it from her folder of sent e-mail.

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4698

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