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Maintain Electronic Records Properly

State law requires all public bodies to maintain records, so city officials must understand and comply with the law. However, with technology changing constantly, it can sometimes be confusing as to what records should be permanently kept and how to store them. It doesn’t matter whether the information comes in paper, data, recording or email form. It is the content, not the format, that determines whether a record needs to be retained. 

South Carolina’s Public Records Act defines public records as any “public record” created by a “public body,” both of which terms are given the same definition as is contained in the SC Freedom of Information Act. The public bodies subject to the Public Records Act include municipalities. Any public record that would be subject to a FOIA request is also subject to retention requirements under the Public Records Act.

The law requires the chief administrative officer of a public body to serve as the legal custodian of the public records. This person may appoint a records officer to create, file or keep those public records. Failure to fulfill those duties is a misdemeanor offense with penalties ranging from $200 to $5,000.

Meanwhile, the SC FOIA lists out the various forms of public records covered by that law, including the “documentary materials regardless of physical form or characteristics prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body.” 

The definition of what is covered by FOIA can therefore include digital records ranging from email to social media and text messages — even text messages on a personal cell phone in which city business is conducted. It can also include recordings of a city council meeting that was conducted virtually or which was posted online. 

Keep materials current
Maintaining electronic records poses unique challenges—especially since records can wind up stored on outdated hardware or software as time passes. A way to guard against this, whenever municipalities are upgrading hardware or software, is to make sure that the material of permanent value is moved over to the formats that are in current widespread use. For example, written material should be in the commonplace PDF format. 

Social media
What if a municipality receives a FOIA request for social media records, and those records are nowhere to be found? The platform itself may not have the records, especially if they were deleted. Services that archive social media records are available by paid subscription, and at the very least, cities need to be making a record any user posts they removed that violate city policies. 

Retention schedules 
The SC Department of Archives and History’s archives and records management division has retention schedules for public bodies in South Carolina, including one for municipal records. When records are created, cities and towns are responsible for holding on to them in accordance with the schedules. In some cases, new categories of records may not fit into the standard rules, and so SCDAH collaborates with the local government to create a specific retention schedule.

For municipalities, the retention decision on correspondence — including email — is determined by subject matter. There are three categories at that level:
  1. Policy and program records — retention should be permanent. 
  2. General administrative records — maintain five years and then destroy. 
  3. General housekeeping files — maintain until no longer needed for reference, then destroy.
In accordance with the Public Records Act, all destruction of records must be reported to the SCDAH.

Municipal officials can contact Archives staff directly with any questions concerning records retention. SCDAH has information on retention schedules as well as forms to report records destruction available on its website.