MODESTO — Emails are not records of conversations or other information sent from one person to another. Instead, they are primarily a method of transmitting data.
Thats how Modesto defines emails and is why its computer system automatically deletes them after 30 days. Its also why a Sacramento attorney filed court papers in Stanislaus County Superior Court against the city last week, claiming the citys email policy violates the California Public Records Act.
The Public Records Act governs what information local governments must release to the public. The act is important because its how the public can learn how much a city is spending on outside attorneys to defend itself in a lawsuit, how much a city has spent on overtime or what it paid to settle a claim filed against it.
Modesto officials say that while their computers automatically delete emails after 30 days that doesnt mean the information is gone for good. The city says employees make paper or electronic copies of emails they need to conduct official business. The copies are available through the Public Records Act. Emails that are trivial, such as one staffer inviting another to lunch, are not copied.
But Modestos policy does not pass muster with Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. He said the Public Record Acts considers emails as public records that are just as tangible as a letter, memo or other document. There is nothing in act that defines emails as a method of transmission.
Its the wrong interpretation of the law, Scheer said about Modestos policy. There is no reason to delete emails. He said making copies before deleting emails complies with the Public Records Act but is problematic because it lets city officials decide what is a public record and what isnt.
Many of the emails that are being deleted are not just about trivial matters about where to go to lunch but about local government business, Scheer said.
There will be documents a city doesnt particularly want to keep. One reason they dont want to keep it is it might say something they dont want to the public to know.
Sacramento attorney Kelly Smith filed court papers against the city after he said he was not able to get the records he needs to represent a Modesto couple fighting an eminent domain case the city filed against them. (A city uses eminent domain to acquire private property for a public good from an unwilling seller. In this case, the city wants land to widen a stretch of Roselle Avenue.)
City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood has denied Smiths claims and has said the city has complied with his requests for records.
Smith has said he expects to be in court in April to ask a judge to issue an injunction against Modesto that would bar the city from purging emails after 30 days. Hes also asking for a declaration from the court that the citys email policy violates the Public Records Act.