Email Purge Poses Faulconer’s First Policy Challenge

Email Purge Poses Faulconer’s First Policy Challenge

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Kevin Faulconer speaks to reporters at his campaign headquarters on Election Day.

Days into his tenure, new Mayor Kevin Faulconer already has his first tough nut to crack: the floated purge of all city staff emails older than a year.

Late last week, Council President Todd Gloria’s spokeswoman Katie Keach confirmed the rumors. Here’s an excerpt from the email she wrote to Scott Lewis:

In developing an email retention policy, there was a need to balance availability of information with the fiscal costs related to its storage.

If the City of San Diego were to continue with an indefinite e-mail retention period, we would need to look at replacing the archive system in the next fiscal year (and no funding was requested for FY 2015).  One time costs to replace our Nearpoint system range from $400k – $500k.

The city plans to start deleting emails on March 28, KPBS has reported.

Ahead of the election last month, Faulconer talked up his plans to run a transparent office. But this is about more than holding him to his campaign promises. Deleting emails en masse doesn’t bode well for the city’s approach to transparency going forward.

Keep in mind the scandals that have surfaced in recent months, from campaign finance to misconduct in the police department. These are ongoing issues we’ll want to track, and old emails could certainly loom large in that effort.

A few updates on all this:

• The U-T editorial board denounced the purge and questioned its legality.

• An advocacy group disputed the high cost estimates Keach cited. Open San Diego’s Ben Katz and Jed Sundwall published an open letter to Faulconer, urging him to consider other options.

The suggestion that storing email is burdensome is a holdover from an era when records were stored in filing cabinets. Keeping an accessible archive of emails is relatively inexpensive. Moreover, it’s essential for city employees to perform their jobs as well as making it possible for San Diegans to understand how their government is working for them.

Retaining emails does bear a cost, but deleting them bears a far greater cost, both in city employees’ productivity and San Diegans’ trust in their city.

Twenty or so people have co-signed the letter in support.

• Voice of San Diego’s Lisa Halverstadt reached out to Faulconer’s spokesman Matt Awbrey to get some insight on which way the mayor’s leaning. He replied early Tuesday:

• It’s worth reviewing Faulconer’s stance on open government leading into the election last month. His five-point Transparency First plan included creating an open government team to work with city staff, and started out with some promising rhetoric:

San Diego’s next mayor must be transparent and open with the public. There should be nothing secret about the people’s business. Kevin Faulconer believes restoring trust, integrity and confidence in City Hall starts with transparency.

• Faulconer repeated that sentiment during his inauguration speech Monday: “When we are inclusive and when we are transparent, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.”

• Californians Aware, a government transparency advocacy group, has threatened to seek an injunction if the city doesn’t confirm by 5 p.m. on March 11 that it won’t delete any public records.

Update: Faulconer’s spokesman Matt Awbrey tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the mayor was putting the policy “on hold.”

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Catherine Green

Catherine Green

Catherine Green is deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handles daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects. You can contact her directly at catherine.green@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. Follow her on Twitter: @c_s_green.

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12 comments
Gary Vineyard
Gary Vineyard subscriber

"...on hold pending further review."  This sounds like he's got the political rhetoric down already.  Just a cynical thought;  If I were him, I have had Gloria make the statement re: purging the emails, have a public outcry, and then when sworn do what he did, making him sort of a hero (although he waffled a bit).

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

Well, it looks like he's passed THREE tests since his election.  According to the UT this morning, the council backed off on the "linkage fee", which he opposed.  He announced that the destruction of e-mails had been put on hold pending review, and he appointed a highly qualified person who had earned a shot a Police Chief.

So far, so good!     

msginsd
msginsd subscriber

During the last few years, the city replaced its own IT non-profit corporation, San Diego Data Processing Corporation, with contracts to several for-profit companies.  It is probable that the city’s new infrastructure provider generated the estimate, and that this estimate isn't just for data storage costs as some want to portray it, but also includes the effort of replacing the Nearpoint archiving system and associated hardware with something else.  There may be good reason why the contractor is recommending replacement given limitations with Nearpoint, the fact that the product has been bought several times over these same few years (goes to support issues), and that it’s likely becoming unwieldy with the large amounts of messages generated by 10000+ employees.  Storage may be cheap, but the actual email system can be quite burdensome to operate, especially for a large organization like the city.   Now add in the task of interfacing it with something like Nearpoint and keeping the entire house of cards standing while thousands of users depend on it daily for their jobs.  We users take it all for granted.  The IT professional in me knows better.


Whether the city’s contractor replaces the Nearpoint system outright, or uses a third party product to interface with cheap storage like Amazon Glacier, there is still labor involved, and that takes professionals who earn good salaries paid by corporations that make profits. There is also the contract to consider.  The contracted storage costs may or may not be comparable to what can be found in cloud services of other providers.   Perhaps the contract doesn't even allow the city to store data outside of the contractor’s data centers in Texas.   In any case, the storage costs being projected by others probably don’t include the system engineer, system admin, system security, and project manager labor involved with making changes to the existing systems.


While there are issues related to transparency and practicability in the decision to limit city email archives, I suspect it came down to money and the idea that past city administrations have generally treated IT as a cost center and not a business enabler.The goal has been to minimize costs, many times to the detriment of citizen services.  Whether or not that’s what government should do is up for debate, but that’s usually what happens when budgets are lean and there’s no architectural foundation to create strategy for providing and prioritizing those services.  I know my friends in the city are working hard to do the best they can with what they’re being given, but a high (unbudgeted) cost went to Gloria in response to a growing citywide IT architectural problem and he made a decision that would appear to be quite unpopular.

Matty Azure
Matty Azure subscriber

Da Mayor has a "Seals" pennant in his office.  Does this constitute his stand on the La Jolla beach issue?

Signed,

Children's Pool Pooper

Chris Wood
Chris Wood subscriber

Congratulations Mayor Kevin Faulconer, this is the kind of political leadership this country needs.  


I have been concerned that freedom was in danger with the NSA scooping up as many records as it could get it’s hands on and becoming a “Big Brother” (of 1984 fame).  And government entities feeling they are empowered to do “what is best” for citizens whether they agree/know about it or not.  


Searchable emails are a hard source of information that allows news organizations to report government actions (or intended actions) for public review and maintain the “Consent of the governed”.


Former democrat


Voice of San Diego
Voice of San Diego

Update from Faulconer's spokesman: The new mayor's putting the policy "on hold pending further review."

Edwin Real
Edwin Real

The host of back up isn't that much. archiving electronically isn't nearly as expensive as printing and storing hard copies.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

After all the platitudes concerning "trust" and "Transparency" Faulconer goes with deleting the emails policy then the man has zero credibility imho.

msginsd
msginsd subscriber

@Jim Jones @msginsd  Jim, we're somewhat on the same page, but I do not believe that you can assign motive regarding transparency to the entire city based on Gloria's decision, nor is it a matter of hiding information.  I worked alongside of many city staff across many different departments for about half of my career.  One thing I learned is that the vast majority try to do the very best job they can and believe that the citizen deserves good service.   Does the city have the money?  Yes.  Is it in the IT budget?  No.  So how does one justify decisions on questions like the one that Gloria faced?


The fact is, unlike many large organizations, the City of San Diego does not have a reference to use when making these kinds of decisions or setting priorities for IT. In my line of work, we call that an Enterprise Architecture, and it takes into account an organization's mission, goals, offered services, business functions, relationships, risks, external factors, etc .   This kind of best practice, while not a panacea, does go a long way to help define how an organization works, determine what makes it successful in meeting its mission, and mitigate risks that happen when unexpected change occurs.  Just as a building requires a blueprint, an organization should have an architecture.  San Diego has only scattered pieces.


Transparency, and open data (which is another story) are only two aspects of city operation that would benefit from a more disciplined architectural approach.   The city has a new mayor and is looking for a new Directory of IT.  Proponents of transparency and open data have reason to be optimistic.


Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

@Jim Jones @Mark Giffin 

no doubt. Bi-partisanship in this town is usually self serving and not towards any public benefit but hey......

what about them seals?

Don Blucher
Don Blucher subscriber

@Jim Jones @mark Giffin-You guys better hope it's the "Good Housekeeping" seal..........