by Tim Grimes
A commission will soon set new rules for how long state and local governments must keep employee emails and other electronic records - and which of those missives will be considered public records.
The Indiana Commission on Public Records will also review and adopt rules for paper-based public records, which local governments will now be required to implement within 30 days of the commission adopting them.
"We had a horrible hodgepodge (of policies) where some counties had adopted all of the statutes, some had only adopted part of them and some hadn't adopted any," said State Archivist Jim Corridan.
The Indiana General Assembly passed legislation earlier this year that called for new rules for electronic records and required the commission to set policies that will be followed by all local governments.
The records rules are important to journalists and the public, who can use documents to track what happens to public money and how government decisions are made.
The Indianapolis Star recently used emails sent among state regulators and utility officials to uncover inappropriate relationships and discussions that led Gov. Mitch Daniels to fire the chairman of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
Lawmakers pushed for uniformity in local government rules after problems in Hancock County. According to Greenfield's Daily Reporter, former Mayor Brad DeReamer's computer was wiped of all its data, emails and documents as new Mayor Dick Pasco came into office. The emails were eventually recovered.
"It seems like this (the issue of recording keeping) only comes up after an emergency, like a flood or the death of someone," Corridan said.
Gerry Langosa, a former reporter who is now a journalism professor at Ball State University, said the rules are important because public officials should not be the ones making value judgments about whether a record should be kept or an email deleted.
But retaining electronic communications comes with its own unique problems.
Physical records like documents, contracts or state reports are typically maintained by an office or an employee - such as county clerk - who is familiar with retention schedules, which set the rules for how long public records must be maintained.
But the preservation of electronic communications is somewhat different because they are essentially maintained by individual government employees, as opposed to a clerk. Government watchdogs say they are concerned about government employees essentially being their own record keepers.
Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, stressed the importance of treating electronic records the same way as other types of records.
"This new policy will help remind officials that emails are similar to paper records and should be treated as such," said Key.
That's why the commission plans to work in July - in a meeting not yet set - to create a statewide policy regarding email and other electronic communications. This policy will deal with what qualifies as a public record that must be kept - and for how long.
The commission also plans to re-adopt the retention policies they already have in place. The new state law requires the commission to reconsider those policies before they are implemented for local governments.
Tim Grimes is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.