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NCTD To Change Email Retention Policy From 2 Years To 60 Days

The SPRINTER rail line runs between Escondido and Oceanside.

Credit: NCTD

Above: The SPRINTER rail line runs between Escondido and Oceanside.

The North County Transit District is considering a policy change that would direct employees to delete certain emails after 60 days.

In the midst of an inewsource investigation and with state and federal agencies eyeing its practices, the North County Transit District is considering a policy change that would direct employees to delete certain emails after 60 days.

A Statement from KPBS Partner inewsource

inewsource is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical investigative journalism organization. We are, however, advocates for open, accessible government. Today, that is endangered in the North County Transit District (NCTD).

inewsource uses state and federal open records laws to hold government officials accountable and to safeguard tax dollars. One of those laws, the California Public Records Act, will be weakened in the North County district if local changes are approved by the district board. NCTD policies currently direct that email correspondence be saved for two years. The change before the board today shortens that time period to 60 days.

Let the NCTD board know this change is unacceptable. Send them an email here.

NCTD currently keeps emails, which often are important documentation of official public business, for two years.

The NCTD board is scheduled to vote on the matter Thursday, and it comes at a key point in the agency’s accountability.

With inewsource at the forefront, media outlets have been chronicling NCTD’s precipitous decline in service, safety, management and reputation by way of a state law called the California Public Records Act. The CPRA is the most powerful tool for accessing records from any public agency funded by taxpayer money.

inewsource has submitted dozens of CPRAs over the course of the last six months to obtain NCTD documents — some of which were emails sent or received by staff members and board members. By doing so, inewsource was able to shed light on the SPRINTER shutdown, high staff turnover, severance agreements, headhunter fees, audits, and a number of other issues that have made up the bulk of the more than 20 stories since February.

This new policy would change all of that.

Memos and notes that are considered not to be “district records” will be deleted after 60 days — and it will be left up to the agency’s 100-or-so employees to decide what is and what’s not a district record.

Peter Scheer, the Executive Director of California’s First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to open and accountable government, was incredulous when shown the proposed changes.

“Either they're failing to show this to their lawyers,” Scheer said, “or their lawyers haven’t read the Public Records Act.”

“And you can quote me on that,” he said.

Scheer said there is no reason to delete anything other than personal email. Governments have argued in the past that limits on technology and cost of storage were legitimate reasons.

“Those are both now irrelevant,” he said.

John Aguilera, who sits on NCTD’s board of directors, told inewsource he couldn’t give a reason for the change. “I am not sure, other than to comply with state standards or guidelines.”

That “standards or guidelines” justification is mentioned four times in the agency’s agenda item for Thursday — which says the move is being done “pursuant to Government Code section 12236.”

But that code has nothing to do with emails. It mentions “guidelines” and best practices for record retention, and actually recommends keeping “correspondence,” which includes email, for at least two years.

NCTD spokeswoman, Deborah Castillo, did not return calls from inewsource seeking more details about the policy change.

She told U-T San Diego the policy “stems from the district's lack of data storage capacity.”

inewsource was unable to ask her about an email archiving system called “Barracuda” that NCTD bought on Sept. 8, 2010 from Datel Systems, Inc. for $18,400.

According to Scheer, the “storage” issue is a non-issue.

Storage “used to be a problem -- around 1982,” he said, “when data storage was expensive and scarce, but today everybody in this agency can store all their email indefinitely for a couple bucks a year.”

Also troubling to Scheer and media outlets is that NCTD is, according to this policy, leaving it up to its staffers to decide what is and what is not a public record.

The proposed policy states that “staff members should delete email messages that are not District records,” and gives examples of what is not a District record:

  • Personal communications that do not relate to District business
  • Unsolicited advertisements or similar communications not related to District business
  • Preliminary drafts, notes and memorandums that have been retained for less than 60 days are no longer needed

“It would be not only arguable illegal,” Scheer said, “but it's certainly bad management and certainly bad practice and bad policy, to delegate to every employee in the government the responsibility to make his or her own determination as to what's exempt under the Public Records law.”

The board will vote to change the policy during its monthly board meeting tomorrow at NCTD headquarters in Oceanside at 2pm.

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