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Council approves new records retention policy

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A sweeping new records retention policy passed unanimously at Wednesday night’s Rio Rancho governing body meeting provides public officials with detailed guidelines on the preservation of documents created or received in the course of city business.

The policy gives employees guidance that City Clerk Steve Ruger said has been badly needed for more than a decade.

Since 2001, when the last ordinance passed, Rio Rancho has come to rely more on electronic archival of records and email – two technologies that the old ordinance doesn’t address. Considering changes in technology and adjustments to the city’s organizational structure, many of the policies are redundant, outdated or contradictory, Ruger said.

He and his staff have spent the past month or two crafting a comprehensive plan by soliciting information about current practices from various city departments and getting informed on how those policies relate to state law.

“Times have changed and there were certain categories that weren’t contemplated back then,” Ruger said.

The 35-page records retention policy details rules for hundreds of different types of records, most of which are public documents. It also outlines rules for confidential documents, including those that police use in investigating crimes or dealing with personnel matters.

The policy has rules for legal documents and contracts, but also includes procedures for documents regarding herbicides used on city property and breathing apparatuses owned by the fire department.

In the fire department’s case, for example, officials can get rid of “breathing apparatus records” only after the equipment in question has been disposed of. Other records are required to be held for several years, though Ruger stressed that the policy outlines only the minimum requirements. Departments can hold on to records for longer if they choose. Some records, like construction records, must be retained permanently.

Another gap in the old record retention policy that Ruger identified related to public employees’ use of email, Ruger said, so councilors also approved a new set of email guidelines that define which emails are public and encourage officials to set up a system to organize their emails for better ease of access for public records or archiving purposes.

The newly approved email guidelines define what are and what are not public records to help public officials determine which should be retained. The policy defines emails that are public as those relating to policies, correspondence that contains “directives, determinations, instructions or guidance” regarding public business, minutes of governing body or committee meetings, messages that authorize, establish or complete a business transaction, and final reports or recommendations produced by task forces or study groups.

As for emails that aren’t public, the guidelines identify duplicate emails, personal messages that aren’t related to city business, drafts of final documents, messages considered “brainstorming” or “preliminary thoughts processes in nature,” emails with attachments that don’t add substantive information beyond what is in the attachment, social event announcements, spam, and messages to or from email distribution lists not directly related to city business.

Ruger said he would like to see elected officials and city employees establish their own systems of organizing public and non-public emails to allow for easy access to public records by custodians or archivists.

Susan Boe, executive director for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said she is concerned about the email guidelines. She said it suggests to public officials and employees that they can delete emails that are necessary for insight into public business. Drafts, for example, should be retained and subject to public records requests, and she said case law has established that drafts are public records.

“They’re suggesting that those can be deleted. We’ve got real good case law that those are public records. Those need to be retained,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “I would encourage them to revisit that policy. It may be fine, but it did raise several red flags.”

The clerk’s office staff did not respond to requests for comment about Boe’s concerns Friday.

Boe and city councilors praised Ruger for the large amount of time and effort he and his staff put into creating the policy.

“Thank you for trying to force us here into the 21st century,” Councilor Mark Scott said.

In other business, the governing body also:

  • Approved administrative rules relating to the city’s DWI Seizure Ordinance;
  • Approved the hiring of Anthony Caravella as the city’s new director of Development Services; and
  • Approved the re-zoning of a vacant lot near N.M. 528 and Southern Boulevard for commercial purposes. It had been zoned for a model home village, but the owners intend to turn it into a commercial zone.