Our view: Emails are now protected, thanks to bipartisan work
House Bill 1528 establishes a requirement for state agencies to preserve the emails for at least a year of agency heads and certain elected and appointed state officials.
Progress was made this year in the ongoing — and ever-evolving — battle for transparency in state government.
House Bill 1528 establishes a requirement for state agencies to preserve the emails for at least a year of agency heads and certain elected and appointed state officials. Going forward, emails of those state officials will be preserved after their death or departure. The emails of legislators are exempt from the policy.
HB 1528 cruised through both chambers of the North Dakota Legislature and was signed last week by Gov. Doug Burgum. Among the sponsors were Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, and Rep. Zac Ista, D-Grand Forks. Mock — who wrote the bill — said he devised the legislation after sensing a “lack of checks and balances” in the state’s information retention policies.
It comes in the wake of the mass deletion of the emails of the late Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who died while still in office. Later, the same office deleted the emails of Deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel after he resigned.
The effort to delete Stenehjem’s emails was as wanton as it was ironic, considering Stenehjem’s reputation as a promoter of openness and transparency in government. And in the aftermath, Stenehjem’s replacement — Drew Wrigley — vowed to work on tightening state policy regarding emails and records. Importantly, Wrigley had nothing to do with the decision to delete the email files of Stenehjem and Seibel. Last year, he told the Herald that he hoped the Legislature would act to close the loophole.
A Grand Forks Herald report earlier this week noted that after learning about Stenehjem’s emails, Wrigley said he and his team made it “crystal clear” that Wrigley’s emails, as well as his chief deputy’s, will be preserved if they leave their positions or die. This was also extended to division directors.
“I didn’t need a state policy to say that,” Wrigley said. “I said … ‘If something happens to me, do not ever delete those. Somebody has to go through them and figure out what’s to be preserved.’ ”
Wrigley told the Herald that the emails could be necessary for litigation and investigations, but also that they often have archival importance.
And there’s more to HB 1528 than just ensuring that emails are preserved for at least a year. It also mandates that agencies must create policies to review the emails of top employees who die or leave their jobs, and that disciplinary action could be in store for state employees who delete records.
Wrigley told the Herald that the email deletion that occurred after the death of Stenehjem and resignation of Seibel “sparked a really important discussion.”
We agree. And we’re pleased to see that action has been taken to close this unfortunate loophole in state openness and government transparency. Additionally, it’s especially heartening to see HB 1528 receive such overwhelming support from members of both political parties.