A “technical glitch” erased an unknown amount of email from some Missoula County elected officials, department heads and other employees.
The emails that were purged were at least three years old, according to Jason Emery, the county’s director of technology. The county’s system automatically permanently deletes lower-level employees’ emails after three years, but it’s not sure if that system is related to the purge.
“We found the problem a little over a week ago when we started getting a few reports that people couldn’t find emails, then realized it was more widespread,” Emery said. “We don’t know where we started ultimately with the number of emails, so we don’t have a reference point” to know how many are gone.
“Our hypothesis is we had a technical glitch with one of our retention policies and instead of retaining for three years it purged everything older than three years. … We know what happened but are not sure why.”
Emery believes the glitch occurred around Feb. 1. He’s working on trying to figure out how many of the county’s 844 employees the purge affected.
Chris Lounsbury, Missoula County’s chief operating officer, said the good news is the emails appear to have been retained both for current and previous county commissioners, as well as for most of the top elected officials and department heads. That’s important because sometimes the reasoning behind policy decisions are included in email exchanges, and they also may have information that involves future litigation.
“When emails are part of the things commissioners use when making decisions, the public process is part of the original record so we print out the comments for decisions made and they are part of that public record. That’s the good news,” Lounsbury said. “The bad news is we can’t know for sure for those things not directly related to something that’s part of the public process, like a decision done during administrative meetings. They shouldn’t be related to big policy decisions, but when you don’t have something in front of you, you don’t know what you don’t have.”
Neither Lounsbury's nor Chief Administrative Officer Vickie Zeier's emails were affected by the glitch.
However, Emery said that Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst was missing some of her older emails. Pabst declined to comment on the impact, and neither Lounsbury nor Emery knew of the extent of what was lost.
“She is in the same boat that a fair number of folks in the county are in. Emails older than three years and one month are gone,” Emery said.
But Lounsbury noted that any emails involved in litigation from the county attorney’s office are stored in the law enforcement records management system, so they still exist there.
County policy mandates that when elected officials or department heads leave their offices, their emails are permanently retained, and Lounsbury said those remain intact and available.
Lounsbury and Emery note that the county is finishing implementation of a new “Capstone” email retention system, and this added impetus to their plan to purchase an on-site backup for the email system.
“The backup email system we have now is hosted by Microsoft, so it’s not in Missoula County but in the cloud. So we’re exploring ways to back it up in a local location,” Lounsbury said. “We’re accelerating the on-site backup so if there’s another incident we have the physical medium we could restore from.”
He anticipates that being in place by the end of June.
Emery noted that data loss is an IT nightmare and a rare occurrence. But overall, he said they generally are in a good place, since the biggest concern was the commissioners’ emails and those have been maintained.
“The last thing we want to see is data loss,” he said. “Even when folks mistakenly misplace or delete things, 99 percent of the time we can find it.
“But it could have been significantly worse. It’s not like if we had all the records on paper and had a major fire or flood. You look at all the protections you can do to prevent data loss, but sometimes there’s unique circumstances.”