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Horry County vows to begin saving its e-mails

Horry County will begin saving all of its council members' e-mails to temporarily bring the county into compliance with public information laws.

The council's Administration Committee voted Thursday to take the temporary measure, and to draft a permanent policy for e-mail retention and storage. The move follows reports by The Sun News that the county regularly deletes e-mails considered public documents, keeping most for 30 days and deleting others within 24 hours, making them irretrievable despite state recommendations that e-mails having to do with county business be kept at least five years.

"I move that we draft a policy and disseminate it countywide, pertaining to temporary retention of county council e-mails. I think for right now we should keep them all," said Councilman Harold Worley. "If I get an e-mail fromsomeone, and they delete it, I'm still going to be turning it in. Then they have a problem."

County Chief Information Officer Sheila Butler said whatever policy the county eventually settles on will have to include training for employees.

"E-mail policies are in the form of 'How long can I keep this in my inbox and what should I use e-mail for?' Then you take that to a retention policy where you say I need to keep this for what period of time. Then from a technical standpoint we figure out how to store it," she said Thursday.

"Step one is we need to develop a plan of action for retaining these type of documents. And then the second step is training on how we keep and store these documents because we have different storage options. Step three is implementing a policy and adopting it," she said.

A request in January by The Sun News for a year's worth of e-mails sent to and from County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland's county e-mail address through the state Freedom of Information Act yielded 1,348 pages of e-mails between the nine council members who use e-mail. Some of the council members turned in no or very few e-mails because they had deleted them, including some that contained county business.

The S.C. Department of Archives and History set a policy requiring e-mail correspondence to be treated like paper correspondence in terms of archiving the material. There are three clearly delineated categories, including a policy category that should be kept indefinitely, a category for administrative concerns, including budget matters and assignments that should be kept for five years, and a category for other correspondence that could be deleted immediately. In 1998, then-county administrator Linda Angus signed the county on to the State Archives' recommendation for keeping correspondence, which requires counties to sort documents based on the content.

Before Thursday, county e-mails were kept for 30 days before being deleted unless a council member saved them in their individual inbox, and if an e-mail is "hard deleted" in the first 24 hours of receipt, it wasn't archived at all. The temporary policy will require council members to send a copy of their e-mails to Council Clerk Pat Hartley, who will keep them in individual folders. A different storage method will likely be worked out in the permanent policy, which will also address which employees' e-mails are subject to the policy.

Councilman Gary Loftus said he had concerns about who will be responsible for determining which e-mails must be saved and whether e-mails he receives on his personal account are subject to the same requirements. Loftus said he keeps those e-mails as well, but wanted to make sure those topics are addressed in the policy.

"The recipient makes the decision of whether or not it's a document we need to retain. That's where education comes into this," Butler said.

The city of Myrtle Beach is the only other government in the county that has a set e-mail retention policy. Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea said in a previous interview that the city follows the State Archives recommendation for saving e-mails as public documents based on content. He said that e-mails can be deleted in the first six months if they do not fall under the requirements, but after that they are archived permanently.

The committee did not discuss a time frame for a permanent policy to be enacted.

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