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Email Purge Poses Faulconer's First Policy Challenge

Just days before handing over the office, interim mayor Todd Gloria casually dropped the bomb the city would delete all emails older than a year, starting at the end of this month. What’s a new mayor to do?

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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