Although most states treat e-mail messages exchanged by government employees like any other government records, Hawaii has no laws that require state officials to actually preserve or maintain such messages — even if they would otherwise be considered government records.
Government e-mail in Hawaii is supposed to be kept for the same time as any similar records that are not in e-mail form. But when The Associated Press tried to access e-mail related to the misconduct investigation of the former governor’s chief of staff, it came up empty because Hawaii’s policy — while all well and good — has no legal teeth.
The governor’s office said the e-mail had been purged and the state comptroller said there was no law requiring the state to keep those records. So, essentially, the AP is out of luck.
A government record is a government record. Period. Whether a study, survey, report, letter, e-mail or Post-it Note. If it’s a government record it should be treated and preserved as such. And seemingly Hawaii agrees — in theory. But without any legal basis to support preservation of all government records, the state’s policy falls flat on its face.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley recently recommended that government e-mail records be retained for at least five years after allegations of systematic deletions in his office. Missouri Gov. Matt Blut — in the midst of investigations over deleted e-mail — is instituting a new e-mail archiving system in the state.
It shouldn’t take a major e-mail deletion stir-up to get a state’s leaders to pay attention to treatment of government e-mail messages. It isn’t exactly a brand-new method of communication anymore. And there is simply no reason to treat an e-mail record any differently than any other record.
Take note, Hawaii, and others: E-mail messages are records, too.