Thursday, May 28, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Records Retention vs. Spring Cleaning (5/28/15)

Question: We have boxes of old records cluttering up city hall. They aren’t doing anyone any good. Can I just toss ’em?

Answer: It sounds like you are gung-ho to do some spring cleaning! But, hold up a minute! It is a misdemeanor to destroy government records in violation of state law.

State law requires city officials to make and preserve all records necessary to a full and accurate knowledge of their official activities. It requires cities to inventory their records and attach a schedule establishing a time period for retention or disposal of records. This is called a records retention schedule. When the city’s record retention schedule is approved by the State Records Disposition Panel, the city may dispose of the types of records listed in the schedule at the time prescribed by the schedule. The city must maintain a list of records it disposes. If records contain private, confidential, or nonpublic data, they must be destroyed in a manner that prevents their contents from becoming known.  

The state law on record retention and destruction doesn’t just apply to paper records. It also applies to electronically created records and emails.  

What you can toss
That doesn’t mean you can’t start de-cluttering without having adopted a records retention schedule. Cities have a lot of data that does not qualify as a government record and therefore is not subject to a record retention schedule.

State law excludes data and information that does not become part of an official transaction, library and museum material made or acquired and kept solely for reference or exhibit purposes, and extra copies of documents kept only for convenience of reference and stock of publications from the definition of records. Because they are not records, they do not have to be saved according to an approved records retention schedule. You can get rid of them when they are no longer useful to the city.

Also, personal communications, like grocery lists, cute photos of your grandchildren etc., that are unrelated to city business are not government records and can be destroyed without regard to a records retention schedule. Keep the cute photos of grandkids somewhere else, though. You know—memories, and all that.

The Minnesota Clerks and Finance Officers Association (MCFOA) has a General Records Retention Schedule for Minnesota Cities available on its website. Many Minnesota cities have adopted this schedule to help manage their records.

See the League of Minnesota Cities Handbook for Minnesota Cities Chapter 27  for additional information on records management.

Written by James Monge. Contact the League's Research and Information Service staff by emailing, or by calling (651) 281-1200 or (800) 925-1122.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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