While the National Security Agency continues to collect and store unprecedented amounts of data from millions of U.S. citizens, it appears the County of Maui can’t even archive emails more than three years old. “Don’t wait ‘til it’s too late,” a flyer posted in the county building warns employees. “Save your important emails. Starting June 1, 2018: ALL EMAILS older than 3 years from their received dates will be AUTOMATICALLY DELETED. Groupwise Personal Archive will be NO LONGER ACCESSIBLE.” The bottom of the flyer tells county employees how they can retain important emails.
The notice set off alarms around the county from people concerned that the wholesale deletion of emails could purge important government records, hinder public requests for information and challenge attempts to keep local government accountable.
As one staffer told me in conversation, “It’s shady as shit.”
“I find the idea of an email purge by this administration a bit unsettling and suspiciously timed, as they wrap up their eight years in office,” County Councilmember and 2018 candidate for mayor Elle Cochran said in a statement to MauiTime. “Having almost completed our council work on the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget, it would have been a reasonable request from them to ask for additional storage funding, if it is truly an issue. I would like to see the email storage maintained for at least as long as seven years.”
Even without additional storage funding for emails, the 2019 allocation for the county Information Technology Services Program is $11 million, with about $7 million for operations and $500,000 for equipment (the rest is for salaries). Apparently, that’s still not enough to keep information archived.
“Maui County is implementing an email retention policy as have all other counties and the State of Hawai‘i,” County Spokesman Rod Antone told me in a May 22 email. “According to the Maui County IT Services Division, their reasons [for the email deletion] are problems accessing and moving personal archives which may contain email 10 years or older, high processing times and costs when moving 100 percent of current email to new cloud-based email, and slow searches of larger personal archives, mailbox, and retain database.”
But there are county rules around disposing government records. The Maui County Code of Ordinances Chapter 2.84, regarding disposition approval, states that each department must submit to the managing director:
“A. Lists of any records that have been photographed or microphotographed and that, as a consequence, do not appear to have sufficient value to warrant their further preservation; B. Lists of older records in the custody of the department or agency that are no longer created or are not needed by it in the transaction of its current business, or that do not appear to have sufficient administrative, legal, research or other value to warrant their further preservation; C. Records disposition schedules proposing the disposal, after the lapse of specified periods of time, of records of a specified form or character that either are being accumulated by the department or agency or may accumulate after the submission of the schedules and apparently will not, after the lapse of the period specified, have sufficient administrative, legal, fiscal or other value to warrant their further preservation.”
In short, Managing Director Keith Regan should have to review lists of the emails to be disposed. Or, if the three year limit for emails is considered a record disposition schedule, Regan would have to approve this as well. Then there’s more.
After the managing director’s review, the lists and schedules need to be reviewed by a designated “disposition committee, composed of the managing director, director of finance, the corporation counsel, the county clerk, and the chairperson of the finance committee of the county council.” This committee passes the final approval to the department or agencies for implementation and disposal.
It doesn’t seem that this legal process is being followed. “The departments are responsible for saving the right emails and storing it somehow,” Rod Antone told me on May 23. “This is just too many. The managing director – Keith – that’s all he would be doing for the rest of the year.”
In other words, there’s no oversight and it’s up to each department to determine what should be saved and what shouldn’t.
“The departments have had months to go over this, and they still have time, and we still haven’t implemented this,” Antone added. “As I’ve said, this is not rocket science. I mean back-and-forth emails between personnel, that’s one thing. If it’s with the public that’s another thing. If it’s an ongoing project that’s a no-brainer. Anything to do with litigation, that also calls for it to be stored.”
He continued, “The department head has his list of priorities and he knows which emails need to be saved. Corresponding, if any of his emails he’s communicated with his people… they know that those emails need to be saved… if it’s an ongoing project, litigation… all those are red flags that something needs to be stored, something needs to be saved.”
Put that way, sure, it doesn’t sound like rocket science. I mean, I still use the email account I made in 2005, when Gmail was invitation-only and held a revolutionary 2GB of storage. Since then, I’ve amassed an unmanaged and bloated archive of tens of thousands of social media alerts, coupons, website subscription emails, newsletters and secrets “the fitness industry doesn’t want you to know” – nothing worth saving, but still buried among contact lens order receipts that might come in handy someday. They haven’t, and I can see why automatic deletion is useful.
But consider how the county code defines “records” to mean “any document… regardless of physical form or characteristic, made or received by the council and any department, commission or other agency of the county in pursuance of law, ordinance or resolution; or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate to be preserved by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization functions, policies, decisions, procedures operations or other activities of the government, or because of the informational value of data in them.”
It’s not just get-rich-quick offers or male vitality promotions: automatic deletion could purge a lot of potential evidence. Individual county employees should not have the power to decide what has, or what may someday have, informational value without appropriate oversight.
This is especially important in the age of Trump, as an empowered brand of politicians deceives ruthlessly, using the power of sensational ignorance to drown facts and degrade trust in public institutions. While this faction uses noise to wield power, it remains the responsibility of government to maintain the public’s trust in its honesty and commitment to improve the lives of the people and land of Maui. Without this, our local democracy unwinds.
The unraveling has already begun. In 2016, The Economist downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy” in its annual Democracy Index, citing a loss of confidence in public institutions. Earlier that same year, Honolulu Civil Beat wrote about a “Corruption in America Survey” which found reporters in Hawai‘i considered corruption to be “very common” at the state executive and legislative level.
If we want to ensure government serves the interests of the people, county officials and policies must hold themselves to high standards of integrity and exemplify respect for the process of law, accountability and the engagement of Maui’s citizens. Proper record keeping and transparency are a necessary part of that, regardless of how many summer barbecue invitations get caught in the mix.
Editor’s note: The County of Maui has not yet responded to a May 23 request to explain how the scheduled automatic email deletion comports with the law.