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E-mail deemed not public record at school system

The Hillsborough school district treats e-mail as unimportant documents.

At City Hall and the County Center, nary an e-mail flies into cyberspace without a copy being made and shot into a special basket for safekeeping.

The agencies go to the trouble of saving e-mail with special software, they say, because Florida's expansive public records law requires it.

Hillsborough County School District, however, takes a different tack.

At the school district administration building, no special software captures outgoing e-mail. Rather, employees are told to print out e-mails when they deal with matters of public records _ a rare necessity, according to school district officials.

"Anything important would not be done through e-mail," said Tom Gonzalez, an attorney who represents the school district. "Anything that's transmitted over e-mail is not of a substantive nature, they're like phone calls."

The school district's e-mail policy provided to a reporter says that all district mail, including e-mail, is subject to the public records laws. An "e-mail etiquette" guide tells employees to "feel free to save important e-mail _ especially if it involves information for public record."

Neither the district's e-mail policy nor the "etiquette guide" defines which e-mails are considered public records.

Florida's public record law is one of the most comprehensive in the country. In 1996, the attorney general considered the question of whether e-mail made or received by a public agency should be considered a public record. In a written opinion, he held that government agencies may only dispose of e-mail communications lacking "sufficient legal, fiscal, administrative or archival value."

Joni Rekstis, a consultant for the Bureau of Archives and Records Management, which sets the standards for which public records must be maintained, said the standard governing e-mail is quite broad and in most cases includes correspondence contained in e-mail. Correspondence, according to the bureau's rules, must be kept for three years.

"It's the content of the e-mail that is the record," Rekstis said.

Rekstis said e-mails that are obsolete or superseded, like an invitation to lunch, may be deleted.

Gonzalez maintains that nearly all e-mail correspondence in the district is of such a transitory nature.

"E-mail is used for "I will meet you at 2 p.m.' and "There will be cookies at 4 p.m.,' " he said.

Which, he said, explains why a recent request by the St. Petersburg Times for all e-mails written by several top district officials in a 5-month period yielded two e-mails.

District officials said two of the officials do not use e-mail and two other officials provided no e-mails. A third provided two e-mails, sent on the date of the request.

Gonzalez maintained that an assistant superintendent's e-mailed response to a reporter's query during the time period was not subject to the retention requirements.

"Communications with a reporter that could have been done on the phone does not rise to the level," Gonzalez said.

Alison Steele, an attorney with who represents the St. Petersburg Times, disagreed.

"The public records laws are in place to have access to the written record of what public officials are doing," Steele said. "In the year 2000, e-mail is particularly important source of information about what our government is doing and to not keep copies of it is contrary to the spirit of the law."

David Kennedy, the director of Management Information Services for the city of Tampa, said all e-mails sent by city employees are saved in a protected area.

Asked why all e-mails are saved, Kennedy said, "The public records law."

Likewise, Lelia Blevins, the county's director of administrative services, said the county decided to save all e-mails, regardless of their content to comply with the public records law.

"We felt this was the easiest way to comply with the state records law," she said, adding, "People have a tendency to forget to print out their own e-mails."

Barbara Peterson, director of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit watchdog for open government in Florida, said that if school district employees are forgetful about retaining e-mails, they are violating state law.

"To throw it away or destroy it before the schedule allows is a violation of law," Peterson said.