Blair Horner: Sunshine Week And Gov Cuomo’s 90-Day Email Deletion Policy
Sunday marks the beginning of “Sunshine Week,” a week in which the nation focuses its attention on government openness. The “Week” makes it clear that it is important to maintain an open government, in order to ensure the proper relationship between public officials and the citizens they are pledged to serve.
The critical tool for holding policymakers accountable, as well as ensuring that the public is educated on policymaking, is the Freedom of Information Law. The Law operates on one basic concept – that government information should be accessible to the public. Without a strong open access law, it is virtually impossible for the public to adequately participate in, and monitor, governmental decision making.
Unfortunately, in Albany, a very dark cloud persists: The Cuomo Administration’s policy of requiring the elimination of emails after 90 days.
At first, the governor’s office argued that the policy was simply due to technological limitations. When faced with the fact that the federal government – which has far more emails than New York – now has a seven year retention policy, the justification has changed.
Now the governor’s office is saying that the policy is something that it inherited. But that is untrue as well. According to internal memoranda, the Administration was describing the policy as something that has been adopted in 2013. For example, in a Department of State memo the agency stated that the “90-day email retention policy was adopted by the State in June 2013.”
Now, the governor’s office has begun to relent in the face of nonstop criticism of that policy. On Thursday, his office stated that the governor would begin discussions with other statewide officials and the Legislature to establish a one email policy for the entire government.
But it is the governor who controls the overwhelming majority of New York’s vast government. It is the governor that should lead by example by issuing an executive order reversing the 90 day email deletion policy and instead follow the lead of the federal government, which requires archiving of emails for seven (7) years.
Governor Cuomo should lead by example and he should act now. Waiting does nothing other than allow the continued destruction of emails.
In Albany, all too often the use of “negotiations” and “summits” are substitutes for action and hopes that the pressure to act will dissipate.
When Governor Cuomo took office, he made a big show of opening the second floor of the Capitol to public access. That was a symbolic act. The governor must use his executive powers to unilaterally spread sunshine throughout state government. Governor Cuomo can mark the beginning of “Sunshine Week” by reopening state government to the public it serves. He can do so with the mere stroke of the pen.
The focus on openness is important, not only for the central roles these programs have played, but in the larger debate over how to strengthen their protections. A constant review of Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws is important, particularly since those laws were conceived in the 1970s when files were written on paper and kept in metal cabinets. It was a time well before anyone knew of the Internet, smart phones or google glasses.
Pledging to make New York’s notoriously secretive state government more open has become a staple of promises by candidates for public office. In his campaign book, “Clean Up Albany,” then-candidate Andrew Cuomo pledged “to make the State government the most transparent and accountable in history.”
It turns out that that pledge remains unfulfilled.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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