March 5 2014 10:18 AM

Faulconer delays Gloria's email-deletion order, but he needs to go all the way and kill it dead

Kevin Faulconer
Photo by David Rolland

Like all the candidates for San Diego mayor, Kevin Faulconer vowed to be a champion of open government. In his first week as the city's new mayor, he had a chance to put his policy where is mouth was.

On Feb. 27, outgoing interim Mayor Todd Gloria infuriated open-government advocates and journalists by issuing a policy memo that said, starting on March 28, all city-employee emails older than one year would be deleted. Count us among the unhappy. And Gloria was doing so well, too. It's a shame he left the Mayor's office on such a sour note.

Gloria's memo explained that the city's information-technology system had run out of storage space, and the city would have to buy new hardware in order to save emails for a longer period of time. Gloria's spokesperson, Katie Keach, followed up by telling reporters that it would cost $400,000 to $500,000 to solve the problem, and money hadn't been allocated.

Keach told KPBS's Claire Trageser that Gloria had known about the dilemma since early in his tenure as temporary mayor, which began last August. Trageser reported that the problem is that Hewlett Packard is pulling the plug on NearPoint, the archive system the city uses. The city researched a few alternatives and concluded that it would cost up to half a million dollars.

Ben Katz and Jed Sundwall of the group Open San Diego fired off an open letter to Faulconer, encouraging him to revoke Gloria's order, claiming that the city could use a cloud system that would keep emails for 10 years, and they estimated that cost at $96,000.

The same day, Terry Francke of the statewide group Californians Aware, sent a letter to Gloria arguing that his policy is illegal under state law, because emails sent to and from city employees are public records and public records are required to be kept for two years. Francke said his group would take the matter to court unless he heard back from the Mayor's office by Tuesday, March 11. Cory Briggs of the group San Diegans for Open Government said on KPBS Midday Edition radio show on Tuesday that he would also sue if Faulconer doesn't revoke the order.

As Briggs said Tuesday, email is one of the primary ways in which government officials communicate with one another about the business of government—the public's business. And having access to these emails is how members of the public and the press can monitor how the government is going about shaping public policy. One year isn't very long. Sometimes, a policy takes time to become controversial. Sometimes, new information comes to light and folks want to go back into the public record to learn more about the history of a given policy. To whom were elected officials and their staffs talking about the policy? What were they saying? What did they know, and when did they know it?  That history is memos, documents and emails. 

On Tuesday afternoon, as CityBeat was going to press, Faulconer spokesperson Matt Awbrey tweeted this: "Mayor Faulconer is placing new email retention policy on hold pending further review. All City emails will continue to be stored."

That's excellent news. Of course, "on hold" isn't the same as "permanently scrapped."

After he's talked to the smartest IT folks he knows— be they inside or outside City Hall—Faulconer should request a hearing before the City Council's Budget and Government Efficiency Committee, so that people like Katz and Sundwall, and other members of the public, can share their knowledge and ideas.

An acceptable outcome here is the city finding and funding a new storage system that allows the city to comply with the letter and spirit of state law. A better outcome is to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of state law.

Keach said that some cities retain emails for less than a year. But we shouldn't strive to simply avoid being the worst—we should strive to be among the best. When it comes to open government, the best is the one who retains government documents the longest and makes them the easiest to get. 

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