Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Open government in Texas...for a price.

Perry will share his e-mails, send a bill


Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry, under fire for his frequent purging of office e-mail, has agreed to give an open-government advocate a batch of electronic records that might otherwise have landed on the electronic ash heap of history.

For a price.

Perry's office wants to charge citizen activist John Washburn $142 for each day's worth of e-mail messages he asked for in his first request, according to a bill sent last week. At that rate, Washburn, a software consultant based in Milwaukee, has calculated that he would have to cough up $2,982 for what he has requested so far -- three weeks' worth of e-mail messages from the governor's staff computers.

The invoice has intensified the spat over Perry's policy, first drafted when George W. Bush was governor, of destroying e-mail every seven days. Critics contend that the shred order is wiping out a key part of the public record. Perry aides say they save e-mail messages they're supposed to keep while cutting down on burdensome electronic clutter.

The battle appears to be headed to the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott, who oversees disputes about the cost of providing government records. Washburn calls the bill a rip-off and plans to file a formal complaint. In the meantime, he said Monday that he's sending Perry a check, made out in the amount he believes he owes.

"Here's your dollar," is the message Washburn says he plans to give the Republican governor. That's the price of the CD upon which the e-mail messages would be copied. The bill Washburn got for four days of e-mail messages includes 31.5 hours of staff time at $15 an hour. That comes to $472.50. Then there's a 20 percent surcharge for overhead. That's another $94.50. Add the cost of the CD and the price tag comes to $568.

Staff labor

Perry spokesman Robert Black said the charges stem mostly from the labor performed by staffers as they go through their e-mail inboxes to make copies. While Perry's computer managers can automatically delete e-mail messages, they can't automatically copy them, Black said.

"We do not have an electronic capability to go in and automatically save everybody's e-mails," Black said.

He said Perry is taking Washburn's requests one at a time, so it's impossible to say how much Washburn might owe if he keeps asking for the records. And until Washburn pays up or the cost dispute is resolved, Black said, the office won't provide the records. Washburn said he'll keep fighting until the governor drafts an e-mail retention policy that ensures that vital records aren't being erased.

"If he changes his e-mail policy, I'll quit asking for it," Washburn said.

State agencies are required to have written records retention policies approved by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

The agency has signed off on Perry's records retention schedule, but there's no mention of the automatic deletion of e-mail, which is a separate, internal policy in Perry's office, officials said.

Bush policy

The policy is a holdover from the Bush years. Earlier this month, Bush was dealing with his own e-mail woes in Washington.

A federal court ordered the White House to retain e-mail messages after government watchdogs sued over fears that staffers wouldn't keep their fingers off the delete key. Jesse Wilkins, a records retention expert at Houston-based Access Sciences, last month headlined an "e-records" conference in Austin designed to help state bureaucrats manage records in the electronic era.

He said that governments everywhere are grappling with how to balance the requirement for transparency with the need to handle ever-larger inboxes and run an efficient office. There are no hard and fast rules, but Wilkins said there's affordable technology that allows governments to manage clutter, index and archive e-mail messages and ensure that important information is retained.

Wilkins said he didn't know the specifics of Perry's records retention policies, but he said a seven-day delete policy was a bit unusual, even in the private sector.

"In my mind, seven days is not reasonable," Wilkins said. "That strikes me as a very short period of time."

Jay Root reports from the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau. 512-476-4294

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