Saving e-mails could cost state more than $1 million

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's computer chief said Monday that it could cost more than $1 million to keep backup copies of the hundreds of thousands of e-mails that get sent and received daily by government workers.

Gov. Matt Blunt last month directed his administration to come up with a way of permanently retaining e-mails. The move came as Blunt was facing growing scrutiny over the e-mail deletion practices of his office.

Dan Ross, the state's chief information officer, said he will give Blunt a plan by the end of the month to purchase a computerized system capable not only of archiving e-mails but of allowing easy searches based on the sender, recipient or content of the message.

He estimated it would cost $1 million to set up the system, plus around $250,000 a year to maintain it. Instead of asking the legislature for the money, Ross said he believes Blunt's administration can find the money within its existing budget.

But Blunt indicated later Monday that he may submit the spending question to lawmakers.

"Obviously, there is a cost involved with this. If you're going to save what's essentially 1 million e-mails a day, it can't be done for nothing," Blunt said. "I think it's an issue that merits legislative discussion."

The House Budget Committee chairman questioned Monday whether that was a wise use of state money. But Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said lawmakers are unlikely to try to stop it.

"There are a lot of things we could probably spend $1 million on rather than just backing e-mails ad infinitum," said Icet, citing as one example the potential for higher payments to physicians who treat low-income patients with chronic illnesses.

"My opinion is this tends to be driven from a political perspective," Icet added. "This has nothing to do with efficiency of government or effectiveness."

Public attention began to focus on government e-mail policies after the Springfield News-Leader reported in September that Blunt's office had denied an open-records request for e-mails from his chief of staff, Ed Martin. Martin told the newspaper that he didn't save the e-mails.

Blunt later acknowledged that he and his staff routinely delete some e-mails, though Blunt has denied that his office violates the state Sunshine Law. Others in government, including staff for Attorney General Jay Nixon, also have acknowledged deleting some e-mails while denying any Sunshine Law violations.

E-mails are considered public records just like paper documents. But the state's document retention policies allow some records to be disposed of sooner than others, depending on their nature.

In late October, former governor's office attorney Scott Eckersley went public with claims that he had been fired for advising Blunt's office that e-mails were public records that may need to be saved. Blunt contends Eckersley was fired for doing private work on his state computer, among other things, not because of any advise about e-mails.

On the same November day Blunt announced his directive for an e-mail archive system, Nixon announced he was appointing a three-person team to investigate whether Blunt's office was violating the Sunshine Law or state document retention policies. Nixon is challenging Blunt in next year's gubernatorial election.

Ross said he had begun looking into an e-mail archive system before any of the e-mail controversy developed. But "events like this give it a boost it would've not otherwise had," Ross said.

Until recently, the state Office of Administration had kept backup copies of e-mails for 60 days, recycling the same storage devices over and over again like the surveillance videotape systems at many businesses.

When news reports began focusing on e-mail retention practices, Ross said that employees in the state data center stopped reusing the storage devices.

Instead, the state started buying additional storage cartridges to hold the roughly 770,000 to 1 million government e-mails that are sent or received each day, Ross said. At a cost of about $3,000 a day for those storage cartridges, the state now has spent about $90,000, he said.

The new archive system run by the Office of Administration will cover many, but not all, of the state's e-mails. Some agencies, such as the Missouri Department of Transportation, operate their own e-mail servers.

Transportation department e-mails that are deleted by the recipient or sender have been kept on a backup system for 30 days, said department spokesman Jeff Briggs. But the department now also is in the process of setting up a permanent archive for the roughly 38 million e-mails it handles each year, he said.

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