Report: State record retention program in disarray

Posted April 11, 2015, at 9:14 a.m.
Last modified April 12, 2015, at 8:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A working group has found the state’s records retention program is in disarray, a problem that could cause public records to be destroyed — and has already been a factor in a document-shredding scandal within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The working group found that 60 percent of state agencies and departments don’t have anyone assigned to deal with public records, though all are required to.

It found that the State Archives Advisory Board, which helps the state and municipalities deal with retention policies, is all but defunct. Of the nine seats, four are vacant and five are filled with people whose terms expired years ago. According to the board’s annual report, it met only once last year, for an hour.

The working group also found that most retention schedules, which detail which documents should be kept and for how long, haven’t been updated in 30 years.

“I can’t imagine these agencies are doing business the way they were in the 1980s,” said Maine State Archives Director Tammy Marks, a member of the working group.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, whose office oversees the state archives, said he takes responsibility for many of the problems — particularly the lapsed advisory board — and he welcomes the report and its recommendations.

“Slogging through the changing nature of records and the changing nature of preserving records and accessing records, the Archives Advisory Board kind of got left on the sidelines. We should have been ramping up our use of it, not walking around it,” Dunlap said.

He added, “I’m responsible for that because I’m responsible for all the processes of this department. The reason that I ran for this office in the first place is because I was interested in the archives. I have utterly no excuse.”

The working group was convened last year at the request of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in the wake of a state CDC document-shredding probe. The group included Marks from the state archives and Brenda Kielty, the state’s public-access ombudsman.

The group presented its 56-page report to the Government Oversight Committee on Friday.

During the presentation, committee members were upset to learn that 60 percent of agencies and departments had no one assigned to serve as records officers, who are designated to handle records-retention issues within the office and to make sure co-workers know what should be kept or destroyed. Marks estimated that the state is missing 100 records officers, largely because workers left and no one else was ever assigned the duty in their place.

State Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, called that a “fundamental failing” for government accountability.

“This is unfathomable to me. This is a key aspect of government transparency,” he said.

Committee members were also surprised to learn that departments are using decades-old retention schedules, deciding which documents to keep or toss based on rules that haven’t been updated since long before the advent of email and other digital records. Although retention schedules are supposed to be reviewed every year, the working group believes that has not happened.

Part of the problem: The advisory board that helps deal with retention schedules is not functioning the way state law intended. The Maine State Archives alone has been handling schedules and retention issues.

It’s been a long-standing problem. One advisory board seat has been vacant since 2004, while others have been empty since 2007 and 2009. Members fill five seats, but their terms expired as long ago as 2005.

“There are people who are not currently on the board, who have applied to be on the board, who have the background to be appropriate to be appointed to the board. And nothing’s been done with them,” said board member Elaine Stanley, whose term expired in 2009.

Stanley began serving on the board as part of her work with the Maine State Library. She retired from the library over seven years ago, but before she left she encouraged someone there to take her place on the board. One person started the process, she said, but there was never an appointment and no one showed up to replace her.

“I stayed after I retired out of interest in what’s being done and the sense of the value of the information that needs to be kept,” Stanley said. “In 50 years, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Well, where are those records?’ And if somebody’s not making sure that they’re being kept available, they won’t be available.”

Maine’s governor appoints board members. The problem has persisted through at least two governors, Democrat John Baldacci and Republican Paul LePage.

“It’s not been a partisan issue,” Stanley said. “It’s just not been given any kind of priority.”

The working group issued a number of recommendations in its report, including changing and updating the advisory board, ensuring retention schedules are reviewed every year and insisting that agencies and departments name records officers. It also suggested that the State Archives refuse to release or accept records from any agency that does not have an officer.

Dunlap, who served as secretary of state between 2005 and 2011 before returning to the position in 2013, said he was happy to have the recommendations. He said the State Archives faced significant challenges in recent years, including staffing levels that dropped from 35 people to 11 due to budget cuts and nearly 100 percent turnover in staff as the employees who were left retired.

“We’re desperately short-handed,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to take a deep breath and say the Legislature’s giving us some direction.”

The direction doesn’t fall just to the Maine State Archives. It’s been reminding agencies and departments since 2013 that they need to name records officers, but to no avail.

“We know what to say,” Dunlap said. “The issue is, how do you get them to listen? And that’s not because they don’t take it seriously; it’s because they’re getting hauled in eight different directions. It’s all so superfluous until you can’t find evidence for a court case, you know? Or somebody dies and you can’t find out anything about what they were working on.”

The Government Oversight Committee will consider the working group’s recommendations and decide whether it should take any action, including the introduction of legislation.

The committee is expected to take up the issue at its next meeting later this month.

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Sen. Christopher Johnson is from Lincoln. He is from Somerville, in Lincoln County.

SEE COMMENTS →