The city of Sacramento needs to pause its plan to delete 54 million old emails
It's really bad timing for the city to dump years' worth of public records
This week, the city of Sacramento says it will hit the delete button on a huge number of emails, those older than two years. How many emails are we talking about? There could be hundreds of thousands, even millions.
City Clerk Shirley Concolino said the city couldn’t tell the public exactly how many emails are on the chopping block: When she did a search of that size, it crashed the city’s computer system.
Eventually, they figured out the number: 54 million.
Watchdog group Eye on Sacramento called on the city last week to put a six-month moratorium on the new email-deletion plan, until a more transparent solution can be worked out.
On Tuesday, a judge granted a stay until July 24.
This paper has repeatedly demanded that the city hit pause on the plan as well, and instead hold public discussions on how to manage city records. The Sacramento Bee, in an editorial last week, also opined that the planned deletion was “a huge mistake,” especially as the city grapples with ethics issues.
Despite all this opposition, the city attorney told SN&R last Thursday that he thinks the new policy is a good one, and that they’re moving forward.
Concolino says the mass erasure is legal because the emails being dumped are unimportant records. The city is calling these emails “transitory,” or non-essential communications, and insists that their disappearance will not impact transparency or public-records requests.
But the problem with that argument, according to Erik Schmidt, policy director for Eye on Sacramento, is that the city is counting on employees to decide what emails need to be retained and which ones to delete.
“If an employee has years of emails, how are they supposed to remember what emails are important?” he asked. “The city is also depending on every single employee to be honest and to retain any questionable or incriminating emails.” (See Mayor Kevin Johnson deleting arena-related text messages even though he was directed not to.)
Without access to emails older than two years, my job as an investigative reporter becomes a lot more challenging.
For instance, my reporting last year on the city’s half-billion-dollar water-meter install involved numerous requests of emails, nearly all of them older than two years. Many credit the reporting we did here at SN&R on the water-meter project as having saved ratepayers at least $65 million in unnecessary spending. (See “Flushing money” by Joe Rubin; SN&R Feature Story; November 13, 2014; at http://tinyurl.com/NRWaterMeter.)
It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to report that story if those emails had been deleted.
A prominent First Amendment attorney is hoping that a judge will stop the city from implementing its new email policy. Paul Nicholas Boylan, who has successfully argued dozens of public-records cases in California courts, filed a motion Friday in district court. On behalf of Eye on Sacramento, he is asking that a judge grant a temporary restraining order to prevent the deletions.
Boylan is confident that a judge will grant the injunction. “The California Constitution states bluntly that the people have the right to access the writings of public officials. How can the public access any of these rights if an agency is going to destroy a trove of these records after just two years? That kind of environment encourages backroom deals in cigar filled rooms. It invites corruption,” he told SN&R.
He also explained that statutes do give local governments the ability to destroy some documents after two years. But what’s important to understand, he says, is that “the law requires agency to harmonize conflicting statutes so they can both be satisfied. The city has decided to sacrifice one for the other here, and that shouldn’t stand.”
So, with all the reasons to support transparency and to keep emails accessible, what’s with the rush to delete a huge archive? A judge may be asking the same question this week. And what’s ultimately decided could have a big impact across California as other cities decide how best to handle their email archives.