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Washington County warns about cost of records law changes

A proposed change to the state's records retention law has Washington County officials concerned.

A bill by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, would impose a mandatory minimum storage period for emails that are sent and received by counties, school districts, townships and other local governments.

Latz introduced the bill after the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office was deleting its email after only 30 days. The records management law does not specify how long correspondence, which includes email, must be kept.

Local agencies currently set their own email storage policies, but they must submit their records retention schedule to the state.

Another law, the Official Records Act, requires government entities to preserve official records, but gives them the discretion to decide which records fit that definition. Some legislators and civil libertarians favor closing this loophole as well.

For Washington County, the proposed changes constitute yet another unfunded state mandate. Should the bill become law, they could be required to retain emails from 180 days to three years.

Washington County Deputy Administrator Kevin Corbid said the cost of extra storage could be $1 million should the three-year retention minimum be imposed. He conceded this was a worst-case scenario and said he hoped the Legislature would be reasonable. He said at a minimum the cost could be $50,000, which would be passed on to taxpayers.

"There's no other form of revenue that would pay for it other than the property tax levy," he said.

Rick Hodgson is an assistant Washington County attorney and the county's data practices compliance officer.

"It has the potential to change the definition of an official record," he said. "This seems to ... require us to keep records that are not official records simply by virtue of the fact that they're in an electronic format."

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, a nonprofit that advocates for government transparency, is working with the Legislature to clarify and commonize the language in both statutes.

"We've basically taken the position that we support retention for a longer period than a number of government agencies have decided to adopt," spokesman Don Gemberling said.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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