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Guest Editorial

Capitol Broadcasting Company                                                               Monday, Nov. 28, 2022


Seth Effron – Opinion Editor – Capitol Broadcasting Company

Legislature’s emails are public records, belong to the people, must be maintained

CBC Editorial: Monday, Nov. 28, 2022; editorial #8807
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

Once again an arbitrary and unchecked edict invoked by the North Carolina General Assembly’s leadership is about to make a legal matter they’re already embroiled in even more entangled.
It may end up being a mess that even a state Supreme Court with a newly elected Republican majority won’t be able to unravel. It will result in needless courtroom wrangling at taxpayer expense.

It seems about 18 months ago there was a new policy adopted that emails sent to and from members of the state legislature and the staff can be destroyed after three years. No one apparently has been willing to say under what authority this policy was set or what the specifics of it are. A part of the unspecified policy allows legislators, of their own choosing, to select some email that might be retained for up to 10 years.

These emails don’t belong to Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore or Legislative Services Director Paul Coble. The fact that many legislative emails (unlike emails to and from most other state agencies) are by law hidden from disclosure, still they are very much PUBLIC records. They are the property of the people, so says state law: “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people”.

The state, by law and by policies that have been set out in executive orders of the governor, the Archives Division and other agencies make record retention generally for at least 10 years.

No one should accept spurious excuses, such as those espoused by Coble that it was about limited storage capacity or cost. A policy guide on public record retention, produced by the state’s Division of Archives, even addressed the cost issue.

“Electronic mail is as much a record as any paper record and must be treated in the same manner,” the guide states. “It is inappropriate to destroy e-mail simply because storage limits have been reached.” The reality is that electronic record storage costs are minimal.The legislature should be preserving, and when necessary producing, the public records necessary to conduct government business and the administration of justice. Again, these records don’t belong to Phil Berger or any other individual. They belong to the people. Legislators and other public officials are merely custodians. The legislature’s policies should be no different than those that cover the governor and other Executive Branch agencies and departments.

Among the many questions that need to be answered by the legislature’s leaders are:

  1. What specifically – and where is it set down in writing – is the policy on retention of email public records sent to and from the members of the General Assembly and its staff?
  2. What was the process for adoption of this policy? Was it adopted by the Legislative Services Commission? If so, when did it meet? What record is there of the action taken?
  3. Or, did it just spring forth from Berger and/or Moore?

No one should be fooled by any of this. This is a brazen effort to hide and destroy public information and records – that quite possibly hides motives and liability.

North Carolinians deserve responsible and accountable leadership from their elected representatives. This is another example of how they aren’t getting it.