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PD Editorial: Deleting government emails leaves the public in the dark

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

A recent whistleblower’s complaint about deletion of emails at the California Department of Insurance provides a vivid illustration of why the Legislature needs to establish a clear and enforceable policy on how long state agencies must preserve public records.

Earlier this year, an employee objected to the department’s plans to automatically delete emails after 180 days. For that employee, it was a matter of being able to do the job well. Government workers, like most people, sometimes find it useful to go back and check a vaguely remembered email sent months ago.

But preserving emails — and all government records — is about more than job efficiency. Transparency is a vital safeguard against government corruption, and the hasty deletion of emails and other written documents serves the desires of people who don’t have the public’s interests at heart.

The employee’s objections about the new policy were dismissed by the department, so the individual became a whistleblower and contacted Consumer Watchdog, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit. Soon after, the department reversed course.

That reversal didn’t go far enough, though. The department still deletes some records in as little as 90 days. What’s more, other state agencies do the same thing — erasing emails and other documents that should be available to journalists and members of the public. The problem is that the state’s Public Records Act doesn’t stipulate how long a state agency must retain records.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, has introduced a bill that would require state agencies to retain records for at least two years. That’s how long the law already requires cities and counties to do so.

Levine is running to unseat Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara in the June 7 primary, but his bill, AB 2370, is no mere campaign stunt. A similar bill was approved by the Legislature in 2019, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it, citing cost.

Yet terabytes are cheap. Storing records for two years on hard drives or in the cloud would hardly put California’s financial health at risk. Today’s lax standards, on the other hand, endanger something equally important — good government.

The Department of Insurance is in the midst of a controversy over Lara’s meetings with campaign donors in the insurance industry. A clear trail of documents in that case would help the public understand and evaluate what transpired — even if they were run-of-mill, non-newsworthy gatherings as Lara says.

Levine’s bill has garnered support from the California News Publishers Association, the First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware. “In their eagerness to purge these records from their servers, agencies dispose of records that provide the public with insights into the development of public policy, illuminate controversial decisions, or potentially hide evidence of corruption and self-dealing,” the organizations said in a joint letter.

In fact, agency heads and employees should embrace the idea of keeping records longer. Public confidence in their work quickly erodes when it appears they’re hiding something.

Levine’s measure deserves the full support of the Legislature and, this time, Newsom, too. Anything less sends a message they are indifferent to protecting records that empower the public to hold their government accountable.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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