This is how the California Public Records Act defines a public record: "(A)ny writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public's business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics."
State law requires the government to retain public records for two years and then only destroy them after a legal review and determination that they no longer have any purpose or reliance, a fairly high standard.
Seems pretty simple, right? Anything written down is a public record and the government has to keep it around. That includes records that may be exempt from disclosure to the public -- a bureaucratic way of saying censorship -- but can't be thrown away either.
There is no question that these basic rules apply to government emails.
Yet there is a very troubling movement afoot to purge state government computer systems of emails much more quickly than the law allows.
A draft I obtained of a plan being circulated in state departments shows that Gov. Jerry Brown's administration is pushing to delete some emails from its computer servers within a few months of their creation.
This plan vastly discounts the Public Records Act. While it does acknowledge that many emails must be retained as "long term records," it does not give hardly enough consideration to who makes that determination and would leave it up to individual workers to often decide when to push the delete key.
"(T)he determination (of what to delete) is based largely on the content of the email, which establishes its intended purpose or evidentiary value. The most noteworthy feature of records is that they possess some value that warrants their retention," the document states.
"Individual staff are in the best position to determine on a case-by-case basis whether or not any given email is one that needs to be preserved on a long-term basis in the organization files," the draft policy continues.
The problem is, the Legislature, in defining a public record and making a law their about retention, already did that.
Encouraging individual government workers to delete emails based on their own whims does not serve the public interest. Give people a chance to get rid of writing critical of them or containing something they think should be kept secret and they are very likely going to do it.
Too many people in government think the records they generate every day somehow belong to them and not the public. All this draft policy does is reinforce that mindset: If I can delete whatever I think should be deleted, the record must me mine to begin with.
If the state enacts it, local governments are sure to follow in droves.
Emails are important because they often contain a deeper and more honest view into the inner workings of government than politicians and bureaucrats want to the public to have.
But we all know that we need the unfettered and unvarnished view of how public employees do their jobs. Emails, whether they are about Oakland officials' reaction to the Occupy movement, or the Berkeley police chief's decision to send a cop to a reporter's home in the middle of the night to complain about a story, or the pepper spraying of students at UC Davis, are often a tool to hold government accountable.
Government email retention is often cast in terms of server space. Email can be voluminous and there isn't money to educate kids or keep cops on the streets, let alone buy more storage space. But there are ways to do this without destroying public records.
How about copying emails and their attachments to compact discs before they are deleted from servers. Discs are cheap and easy to store.
And how about protocols where individual employees don't have the authority to delete their own records?
The email policy retention and deletion policy being circulated through state government is wrongheaded and conflicts with the state Public Records Act. It should be scrapped immediately and replaced with a plan that guarantees transparency and access.
Thomas Peele is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and teaches a class on public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.