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Hennepin Co. email deletion policy worries government watchdogs

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Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has a new policy that allows his deputies and other personnel to delete email that's more than 30 days old and isn't "necessary for legitimate law enforcement purposes" or for evidence.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2015 file

The Hennepin County Sheriff's office has started deleting some emails after just 30 days in a move that has some government watchdogs concerned. 

A new policy of deleting emails that are more than 180 days old will take effect countywide next year, but the sheriff's office policy already is moving more quickly than that.

The policy will initially have employees move important email records into a system that retains them on a long-term basis, according to Judy Regensheid, the county's chief of operations, who insists important data contained in emails will be preserved.

   "Nothing is changing relating to the content of data. No matter what, we're bound by Data Practices Act, so no matter what the format is, we're required to keep data," Regensheid said. "None of that is changing at all."

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek's stricter policy allows his deputies and other personnel to delete email that's more than 30 days old and isn't "necessary for legitimate law enforcement purposes" or for evidence, according to the policy.

"The updated retention schedule and policy will allow the County to be better data stewards, while also reducing the county's cost to retain large quantities of email data over multiple years," said a statement from spokesman Jon Collins. "The policy update ensures that all public law enforcement and official business records are properly retained in accordance with relevant Minnesota statutes."

The policy is raising concerns among government watchdogs and data experts.

Don Gemberling, a spokesman for the Minnesota Council on Government, said the deletion policy risks losing information that average citizens might think is important, even if government employees or officials think it's not.

"They're going to decide things that act to their benefit," he said. "What's in their self interest? And that means that a lot of stuff that's going to disappear, given the vagueness of the context, is stuff they'd rather the public didn't see."

Gemberling says an advisory opinion by the state Department of Administration's Information Policy Analysis Division allowing the St. Paul school board to meet in secret was another concerning step away from open and transparent government.

Tony Webster, a Minneapolis public records researcher, said he thinks he's actually seen some of the consequences himself. He's been involved in a months-long battle over a request for emails to the Hennepin County Sheriff's office and says there's reason to be concerned, according to what he has been provided by county officials. 

Webster said there are suggestions in some emails that the sheriff is contacting other departments in an effort to improve facial-recognition surveillance systems.

"The thought that one elected sheriff could reach out to another elected sheriff and start this data sharing program, to use facial recognition data sharing that's not regulated by the Legislature, that's a really scary thought to me that this is just all happening without anyone knowing about it," Webster said.

County officials, however, say the costs of keeping data to be available for disclosure is becoming prohibitively expensive. 

Storage costs for taxpayers rose from $1 million in 2013 to $3 million this year, Regenscheid said, and the expense is growing at a pace of 25 to 30 percent a year.

"To be efficient government and conscious of taxpayer dollars, we've been looking at how we can decrease those costs and still abide by data practices law," she said, adding that the county doesn't consider email a "system of record." 

But Webster said he's skeptical and thinks the deletion policy is in part in response to his legal action to open up more emails and records. 

"I think, like in a lot of government technology implementations, it's very bloated," he said. "I think it definitely does not need to cost them that much, and I think the claim that that's why they're deleting emails, to save money, is not credible."