Public emails are being hidden from the public

Mar 03, 2015 5:31 pm
While the costs of storing electronic data and sharing that with the public continues to drop with technological innovations, many governments across the United States continue to delete emails as soon as they can. In New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo was elected on the pledge to lead the most transparent administration in state history, there is a policy in place to delete emails after three months. "It’s like something out of 'Mission Impossible' – this email will self-destruct in 90 days. This is the type of stuff that happens in a dictatorship," said Steve McLaughlin, a Republican assemblymember, in a Tweet. The Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan nonprofit that advocates for open government, points out several other examples:
• Ferguson, Mo. officials determining that emails related to officer Darren Wilson’s case didn’t serve the “public interest” and therefore would be available only at prohibitive cost.
• Broward County, Florida officials are charging journalists $132,348 to provide emails associated with foreclosure cases.
• Pennsylvania state agency officials are using personal discretion about which emails to keep after only five days, a policy which led to the governor’s special advisor on education having only five traceable emails after working for the state for a year.
Why is this important? In the Los Angeles Unified School District, officials are now increasing their email destruction after older emails revealed the closeness of officials’ relationships with potential district vendors. If these public records are not available for journalists and members of the public to request, then public documents about important governance issues are being hidden from the public. In the pre-digital age, paper records could be found in file cabinets. Now, some emails public employees write are about the latest cat video on the internet, or requests from lobbyists for policy changes. Often, both are thrown out quickly, when the latter should be stored for later review. The Sunlight Foundation finds this worrisome. "Both in the federal government and in state and local governments across the nation, the most common method presently used to archive electronic records allows public employees to decide which individual emails they would identify as 'public records.' Other observers of government IT have noted that this approach to email retention practically works against the robust protection of public records."
Even more troubling, some government bodies aren't keeping any email records. California’s Tri-City Healthcare District has no general email retention requirement, according to Sunlight Foundation. And on March 3, The New York Times reported Hillary Rodham Clinton exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business as secretary of state, avoiding any future inquiries. Clinton may have violated federal requirements that officials’ correspondence be retained as part of the agency’s record, according to the paper.
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