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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County might start deleting ‘transitory’ emails to save money and improve record requests

The Spokane County Courthouse and jail are seen in 2019.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County has saved every email it’s sent or received in the last 15 years – all 149,842,055 of them.

Hoarding all of those emails has some advantages. For instance, if someone wants to file a public records request and read over the correspondence of a county commissioner who left office a decade ago, the emails are still there.

But saving millions of emails comes at a cost, Spokane County Public Records Officer Tony Dinaro said.

Spokane County pays about $52,000 a year to save its emails in a cloud-based storage system, and the price is going up. Barracuda Networks, the county’s storage company, is raising its rate in 2024 to $62,000. On top of the tangible financial burden, Dinaro said retaining more emails makes it harder for county staff to fulfill public records requests.

Due to those downsides, Spokane County is considering saving fewer emails. Dinaro on Monday outlined during a presentation to the Spokane County Commission a proposal for reducing emails.

If the county adopts a new email retention policy, Dinaro said it would focus on transitory emails.

Those can include auto-generated reminders, newsletters sent to thousands of people and retirement announcements. The Washington Secretary of State’s Office has a long list of documents that could count as transitory, including contact information and staff communications about “potlucks, birthdays, fun runs, cookies in the break room, etc.”

In general, Dinaro said, an email is transitory if there isn’t any value in saving it.

“We believe the majority of our emails are transitory,” he said.

Even if the county starts deleting transitory emails, its retention policy for important emails won’t change, Dinaro said.

“The last thing we would want is to accidentally delete something that does have a retention value,” he said. “It makes transparency easier and more responsive when you only keep the things you actually should be keeping.”

Dinaro said the county plans to implement a mandatory training course that teaches employees to identify transitory emails. The county will then add a feature in Outlook, the county’s email system, that allows employees to mark an email as transitory.

A project team will review those marked emails to see how successful county staff and politicians were at identifying communications that aren’t worth saving. If they do a good job, Spokane County could start deleting those transitory files after 90 days and make the feature permanent.

Right now, the county has no plans to delete past emails from its massive archive. Dinaro said the new email retention policy would only apply to future emails.

He stressed that holding onto everything isn’t always a good policy, and noted that the state encourages local governments to actively manage what documents they keep.

“I want to be clear that we’re not trying to hide things,” Dinaro said. “It’s actually trying to be better custodians of public records.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Barracuda will begin charging Spokane County $62,000 per year for email storage starting in 2024.