Even a clown car turns in the right direction sometimes. I was offline most of yesterday but I wanted to mention an item in the D-G on Treasurer Dennis Milligan‘s decision to nix, at least for now, a planned policy of requiring all employees to delete all emails after 30 days.
Milligan’s planned move was heavily criticized by media organizations and transparency advocates because the only plausible motivation for such a policy was to hide public information from the public. (Milligan’s office offered up an excuse with the panache for unintentional comedy that is his trademark: “after a while your email gets to where it’s a humongous amount of information.”) Has Milligan seen the light on the need for transparency? More likely, he was feeling the heat after ethical scandals that played out in official emails.
Harris seemed bummed that the policy had gotten so much negative attention. “We thought we’d try it, but there was a big reaction which caught us off guard,” he told the D-G. Indeed, it’s shocking that transparency advocates might object to Milligan’s office destroying historical records so that they cannot be examined by the public or media after Milligan promised to make “this office the most transparent administration in history.”
Harris also went with an “everybody else is doing it” defense: “No one reacted to it when the secretary of state did it. No one reacted when the attorney general did it.”
Well, here’s a reaction: all constitutional offices should retain public records for inspection by the public. Listen to the scandalous contempt for the public that these so-called public servants have: “It’s a long-standing policy that we feel comfortable with keeping.” That’s the dismissive non-argument given to the D-G by Jason Cline, spokesman for Secretary of State Mark Martin. The zeal in Martin’s office for shielding the historical record from the public is so strong that they cannot be bothered to come up with an excuse beyond, this is the way we’ve always done it. It’s as laughable and contemptuous of the intelligence of the public as the data-free and hysterically bogus claim that keeping email records more than a month is prohibitively expensive. There is only one reason to delete the record: you don’t want the public to see.
The legislature could add transparency to state government by including the constitutional offices in the state’s Act 918 of 2005, which requires state agencies, boards and commission (but not constitutional offices) to retain “substantive” emails for at least four years. In the mean time, constitutional offices that have actual respect for public’s right to access could simply use the policy that every other state agency has to use. That’s what the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands does; a spokesperson told the D-G: “It is a reasonable policy, and it was easy for us to just utilize it.” Fancy that! (Based on the D-G’s reporting, it appears that none of the other constitutional offices follow the policy of retaining substantive emails for four years.)
Another fix that the legislature could make is to more strictly define what records must be kept (currently, the state employees themselves can decide what counts as “substantive” and what doesn’t).
It seems worth noting that technology has advanced slightly since 2005, and perhaps storage of the “humongous amount of information” is possible so that the activities of all public servants are open to the public they supposedly serve. The only reason to delete public records is to conceal the record from the public.