Garbage excuse for trashing records

Sacramento plans to automatically delete old emails because it can

The city of Sacramento is getting ready to purge several years worth of emails, saying they’re too old to keep around. In the process, the city will be trashing public records that could be critical to future law-enforcement investigators, journalists and citizens trying to better understand how their government does business. And so far, the reasons given for this mass deletion sound pretty dubious.

The city’s current policy is to delete emails after two years. Same goes for paper documents, with some important exceptions, such as court and property records, official meeting minutes and the like.

State law only says cities “may” destroy these documents after two years. And in the days when everything was done on paper, it made some sense to allow that. But the city certainly doesn’t have to throw records away—especially if there is a cheap and easy way to store them.

And Sacramento City Clerk Shirley Concolino says that, in practice, only some departments have been routinely purging emails. But that’s going to change now, because the city has decided to install new software to automatically delete any emails past their expiration date.

Concolino said she didn’t know how many records will be destroyed or what departments would be affected. It certainly will be thousands of emails, likely more. And there’s no particular date set for flipping the kill switch; Concolino said it would likely be in April or May.

But why should the city destroy any emails? And why now? They are public records, after all. And they are not taking up significant space. Not when you can go into any Target or Wal-Mart store and spend $60 for a wallet-sized hard drive that can store millions of emails.

Concolino says that “it’s not a storage issue. It’s a management issue.” In fact, Concolino says that “if we did this properly, we should be deleting emails within 60 to 90 days.”

But Peter Scheer with the California First Amendment Coalition disagrees, saying it’s not significantly harder to manage 10 or 20 years worth of emails compared to two years. “We’re talking about digital files that are searchable,” Scheer says.

As for deleting emails after 60 days, the city of Auburn used to have that policy, until Scheer’s group sued, saying the policy violated state law. Auburn’s policy is now two years.

Why keep emails around? Ask reporter Joe Rubin, who investigated Sacramento’s troubled water-meter program for SN&R (see “Flushing money,” SN&R Feature Story; November 13, 2014). Rubin relied on older emails to understand how the city ended up with its very slow, very expensive water-meter installation plan.

He even found 3-year-old emails providing evidence of a 2012 accident involving a Curtis Park gas line—gas spewed for more than two hours, a potential blast zone was evacuated (see page 12 for more on this). The emails not only provided proof of the incident, they also showed that the top DOU brass knew but failed to disclose when asked about gas-line incidents.

And Rubin points out that city emails were an important part of the evidence that led to prosecution in a bribery scandal in the city’s Department of Utilities in 2008.

Under the city’s new email-elimination practice, all of those records would have been destroyed, long before any investigative reporter or FBI agent could look at them.

Emails are obviously going to be part of any inquiry into government corruption. Look at the reporting that just led to the resignation of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. There reporters asked for thousands of emails, going back to 2011, and in response the governor tried to destroy them.

But it’s not just evidence of wrongdoing that needs to be preserved. “There’s a public interest in retaining access to its own history,” Scheer says. An archive like that could be valuable to historians and students of government.

“What is the public interest in destroying them? I don’t see it,” says Craig Powell, with the local government watchdog group Eye on Sacramento. “The only purpose of a purge like this is to deprive the public of those emails.”

And here’s where the logic of the bureaucracy kicks in. Public officials invariably justify withholding public records—in this case destroying them—with some variation of “because we can.” The problem is that’s a completely upside-down and backward interpretation of the California Public Records Act, which says government should make all records available to the public unless there is a damn good reason not to.

And let’s be clear, some in City Hall will certainly see the two-year cutoff as a way to minimize public-records requests from pesky reporters and citizen groups, because they can.

The city’s email-deletion policy hasn’t been reviewed since it was adopted several years ago. There is no pressing need to get rid of any emails now. Not before the case is made to the city council and to the public.