We just marked another Sunshine Week, a national initiative sponsored by good government groups and media organizations to promote transparency and freedom of information.
But the city of Sacramento is about to make a drastic move counter to that spirit, deleting 13 years of emails dating to 2000. Just how many emails may be purged isn’t clear, but could well be in the millions. The city says it doesn’t know how many are in its archives, and when it tries to find out, its computer system crashes.
The timing is ironic not just because of Sunshine Week. Hillary Rodham Clinton took a hit from the recent revelation that, as secretary of state, she kept government emails on a private server. Just before John Kitzhaber resigned as Oregon governor last month, he tried to delete thousands of emails from a government server, but an alert civil servant refused to carry out the order.
Sacramento officials have their reasons for the email purge. City Clerk Shirley Concolino says that official policy since 2010 has been to delete emails after two years unless they are deemed important business. Sorting through that many documents is a huge task, so the city just kept the emails on the server – until now. Concolino says that most of the archived emails older than two years will be purged because they are considered “transitory communications.”
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The city is relying mostly on the subjective judgment of the email holders to determine what should be saved.
“That’s a terrible, scary idea,” says Craig Powell, president of Eye on Sacramento, a local watchdog group that, with the League of Women Voters, has been holding town halls on government ethics and transparency.
“What this policy does is to almost incentivize staff to delete emails which could be embarrassing to the City Council, the city manager or themselves,” Powell says.
Over the last year, I’ve made several public records requests for city emails. Often, the messages reflect diligent work. But some emails are embarrassing and troubling.
One example: I was concerned about reports from residents about water meter installation crews hitting natural gas lines. At first, city officials insisted that there had been no accidents, then acknowledged a few. But emails unequivocally showed additional gas line breaks that caused evacuations and could have resulted in deadly explosions.
Who would argue emails that reveal threats to public safety should be deleted?
That is the problem with the city’s policy. It doesn’t protect the public against important emails being deleted simply because they slipped through the cracks, or because someone would prefer they be expunged.
Emails that some would no doubt like forgotten are related to corruption and mismanagement at the city Department of Utilities. In 2007 and 2008, the FBI made several arrests related to a kickback ring that had been slipping city equipment out the back door for years.
Following the arrests, The Bee reported how a long-running utility department “charity” golf tournament had failed to hand over promised money to a nonprofit that helped underprivileged kids. According to FBI interviews, thousands of dollars in donations were a way to funnel kickbacks. Several water meter contractors also donated thousands in cash and prizes, such as a trip to a luxury resort in Pebble Beach.
I obtained emails showing that there was also a political dimension. While the City Council was voting on a lucrative water meter plan, then-Utilities Director Gary Reents invited council members and told tournament organizers to cover their costs.
According to emails, then-City Councilman Steve Cohn attended the 2005 tournament as a guest of the utility department. Could his votes on issues such as placing water meters in sidewalks – a big extra cost for ratepayers and a windfall for contractors – have been influenced?
Cohn says absolutely not. He says he attended the event as a way of showing “solidarity for the blue-collar workers at the utility department.”
Still, should this kind of email record be erased?
At one of Eye on Sacramento’s town halls, Cohn’s successor, Jeff Harris said while most of the emails in the city’s archives are a snooze, there could be “kernels in there that are important.” He promised to raise the email issue before the council.
It would be a shame if elected officials don’t take a hint from the public concern about transparency and show some leadership before too many emails disappear forever.
Joe Rubin is a Sacramento-based investigative journalist who has reported extensively on the city’s water meter program.