(TNS) — As of Saturday, the city of St. Paul, Minn., began automatically deleting employee emails from their inboxes after six months. City workers have been encouraged to do the same even sooner.

"Don't save messages that are no longer useful," states the city's new records retention training guide. "Delete as soon as their purpose is served."

The city's new records retention policy has raised eyebrows among open-records advocates, journalists, archivists and others who feel that internal communications at City Hall should be subject to public scrutiny well into the future.

City officials say they're operating within the state open-records law. The city's 22-page training document outlines the difference between important documents and "transitory messages, non-records and personal messages" that can be deleted right away. It also states emails with officials records can be saved for three years.

Before the policy change, all emails were automatically deleted from city servers after three years, which struck city officials as cumbersome. The change, though, is not about saving server space, said Angie Nalezny, St. Paul's human resources director.

"We want employees to be more strategic, efficient and helpful in what they're saving, and the best way to do that is to be able to find what you need quickly," she said. "What we're saying is, keep what you need to do your work."

Nalezny emphasized that budget documents, city council hearing materials and emails related to an upcoming city council hearing would still be stored for three years or more.

"We are saving official records absolutely according to the records retention schedule," she said.

St. Paul's training documents emphasize that city email is not the appropriate place to store official documents, which should be filed according to each department's management system.

Meanwhile, an employee can save any email they want for longer than six months. "You can put whatever you want in your projects folder, and that remains for three years. The employee chooses what they want to keep," Nalezny said.

The new policy has nevertheless raised some concern from open-records advocates.

"It's certainly a head-scratcher," said Mark Anfinson, an attorney who has been retained by the Pioneer Press for guidance on open records issues. He worries about the automatic deletion of government materials without human review.

"What if somebody sues you two years after an email has been sent?" Anfinson asks. "How expensive or difficult would it be with modern server technology to save those emails for a longer period of time?"

Sonny Albarado, a special projects editor with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has been a national advocate for open records and greater transparency in government through the Society of Professional Journalists, which he led from 2012 to 2013.

In Arkansas, he said, the state treasurer planned to erase his email every 30 days but reversed course in May after media attention. "What the public loses is, a decision made in May -- if he's only keeping the email for 30 days -- you don't have a way of going back 90 days later and determining how a decision was arrived at," Albarado said.

"I understand the issue that storage space is finite, but 30 days is too short a period," he said, while noting that email retention policies vary widely. "It fluctuates even at the federal level between different agencies."

Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto said she was not intimately familiar with St. Paul's policy change, but she emphasized that it's important to discern between official government business and "non-records" that take up expensive storage space. "I always refer to the 'There's donuts in the kitchen!' email," Otto said.

POLICIES VARY

As aggressive as St. Paul's new email policy may appear to critics, the city is hardly alone in getting rid of internal messages as quickly as possible.

The Metropolitan Council, which serves as a planning agency for the seven-county region, maintains a policy of holding onto emails for "no more than 60 days for the purpose of restoration and disaster-recovery purposes only," according to official policy.

The emails are automatically deleted from the Met Council's computer server based on their date stamp, said a Met Council spokeswoman. That includes text messages sent from or to a Met Council BlackBerry smartphone.

Stacie Christensen, director of the state's Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) -- the state's administrative experts on information policy -- said no particular state office has jurisdiction over statewide records management. Every government entity is required to have a records retention schedule, but those schedules vary between state departments and from municipality to municipality and county to county.

Don Gemberling, a spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said recently that Minnesota's records management requirements are weak.

State statutes require public agencies to have their records retention schedules approved by the state's Records Disposition Panel. The panel includes representatives from the Minnesota Historical Society, the state auditor's office and the state attorney general.

"The practical reality of records management policy ... as long as they can get that approved by the Records Disposition Panel, then they can do that," Gemberling said of cities like St. Paul instituting policies.

Anfinson said more cities, counties and government agencies will likely set new parameters of their own.

"As St. Paul looks at implementing this, it's not going to be the last one," he said.

©2015 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.