The Burleigh County Commission and other county commissions across the state need to follow the law.
The Burleigh commissioners apparently weren’t aware they are required by law to comply with the state’s records retention policy. It was called to their attention by Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer. County commissioners must keep correspondence related to county affairs, such as letters or emails, for three years. Commissioners admitted they haven’t been complying with the law.
"I don't keep anything," Commissioner Kathleen Jones said at a recent commission meeting. "I delete it the minute I've responded ... I've been doing it for four years."
"I don't know of any problem with the way we currently do things. I've never had the state's attorney even suggest that our current method was a problem with the law," Chairman Brian Bitner said.
The Tribune Editorial board finds it disturbing that Burleigh and other commissions aren’t in compliance. County commissioners have state’s attorneys to provide advice and keep them informed about laws governing their work.
Former Burleigh County State’s Attorney Richard Riha was with the county for 35 years and told the Tribune that “I don’t remember that question ever coming up. It never came up. If they would have asked, I would’ve told them.” He also said of the commission, “When you’re elected to a political office, you should have an idea of what you can and can’t do. I always kept my emails for three years.”
When someone is elected to a county commission it would seem logical that they would receive a briefing on the laws that apply to them. Especially something as important as government emails. Apparently that's not the case across the state.
Using private emails to contact constituents and to conduct county business allowed commissioners to act in secrecy. There’s no official record of any business they might have conducted using their emails. It’s a total lack of transparency. In the past, other boards that have conducted business using email, private or government, have been ordered to redo their meetings in public.
Ignorance of the law isn’t a valid excuse for violating it. Commissioners need to tell the public whether they emailed each other to discuss county business before holding meetings. If they didn’t delete old emails they need to make them public.
Commissioner Mark Armstrong was right when he said: "We can't say we're going to use our private email address and determine what records we're going to delete and which we're going to save. That's simply not an option for us. The public expects us to have a government email address that is transparent, that can be used when open records requests come in."
If Armstrong’s correct when he said only 10 counties in the state are following the law on the retention of emails, that’s deplorable.
The Burleigh commission approved the purchase of one laptop computer and four tablet computers for commissioners and each will get a government email address. The devices will be used to access agenda packets during meetings and to conduct other county-related business.
"There is a law we're supposed to be following ... I think the sooner the better," Armstrong said. The Tribune believes the commission is very late and when they comply it won’t be soon enough.