By Tom Momberg
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent decision not to purge e-mails of state employees after 90 days has been praised by watchdog groups after much scrutiny.
Moving forward, the state might be able to look to New York City for a system that has for long treated email documents like any other paper record.
Cuomo announced last week that any deletion of e-mails would now have to be manual, but the state has to come up with new policies. Some emails that may have been necessary for public records have already been deleted by several state employees acting on a 2013 policy the governor set for all state agencies to automatically delete e-mails after 90 days.
The city Department of Records and Information Services sets retention and disposition schedules for the mayor’s office, borough offices, City Council and all city agencies.
“There have been retention schedules in place for every agency, for the most part, many dating back to the 1980s and some updated more recently, all of which apply to emails as well,” said Kenneth Cobb, a department spokesman.
In response to requests through the state Freedom of Information Law, emails were defined: “All email documents transmitted or received by the agency that are not duplicates of another record and which may be classified by subject matter within one of the categories of records set forth in the agency’s records retention schedules.”
In other words, there is no blanket amount of time required of the millions of emails sent and received by city employees for retention. For example, according to the document retention schedule for Council members, any email subject to constituents correspondence is required to be filed and retained for a minimum of two years. And any correspondence between City Council members and state or city agencies is supposed to be retained for four years.
Employees are given training to identify which documents, including emails, are to be retained, where and for how long, according to the Records and Information Services.
Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, agreed with the procedures followed in New York City.
“The very content and nature of emails should be treated like paper records,” Freeman said. “The contents of an electronic article should determine how long the record is kept.”
Cuomo’s administration put an end to the quick disposition of state employees’ emails following a summit in New York City May 24. In the weeks following, his office said Cuomo was considering other state’s policies and has been meeting with policy experts on the subject continuing into the past week.
Freeman said he was scheduled to attend a meeting with Cuomo’s administration earlier this week, and would suggest that retention standards be based on the message, not the medium.
The media had criticized Cuomo’s email purge policies over the past year, because watchdogs were concerned several documents required by the state’s records retention schedules for counties, school districts and municipal governments would be deleted before they could be properly filed. Even more recent attention was placed on the state’s policies after media outlets criticized 2016 Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for using her private email account during her tenure as Secretary of State.
A loophole remains in document retention schedules that excludes state legislators from email retention policies, which Cuomo’s administration had said it plans to address in its policy meetings going forward.
Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomb