NEW YORK CITY — The Bloomberg administration could let an important part of its legacy end up in a digital Dumpster.
Currently, the city only has plans to retain the emails of a finite number of agencies from the Bloomberg era — and those are mainly being saved to protect itself in the event of future litigation, DNAinfo New York has learned.
If the emails are not saved, an unvarnished window into the decision-making and thoughts of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and top deputies like Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly could vanish.
When DNAinfo New York asked the mayor's office and the city Law Department about the possibility that these agencies' emails would eventually disappear, both called that account "incorrect and inaccurate" but wouldn't elaborate.
They also said that an email retention plan has not been finalized.
What to do with the city's copious emails from the past decade became the topic of a presentation that Larry Kahn, the city Law Department's chief litigating assistant, delivered to multiple agencies late last year, sources said.
In his talk, he explained that certain agencies’ emails may not be preserved, according to sources.
DNAinfo New York asked under the state's Freedom of Information Law for copies of memos and documents connected to the Law Department’s email retention presentation. The Law Department denied the request, citing attorney-client privilege, but acknowledged that city lawyers had met to speak about the issue.
However, DNAinfo New York learned that Kahn’s presentation discussed recent legal decisions where an institution was found liable for retaining emails for a certain period in case they are relevant to future litigation.
For that reason, the city plans to retain the emails of the Administration for Children’s Services, the Department of Buildings, the Law Department, the Office of Collective Bargaining, the Department of Aging, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, the Business Integrity Commission, the Parks Department, the Department of Youth and Community Development, the Department of Probation, the Department of Small Business Services, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the Department of Consumer Affairs and smaller agencies.
The Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications currently hosts these agencies’ emails on its servers. The city Law Department is still formalizing a plan for how long to keep them and where, but it has floated three scenarios.
Under one scenario half of these agencies' employees — including top brass and managers — would have their emails retained for 30 years. The other half of employees would have their emails saved for five years. This retention plan would cost the city $83 million over 30 years.
In a second scenario, 10 percent of these agencies' employees would have their emails preserved for 30 years. This category would again include agency brass and top managers. The city would keep the emails of 40 percent of these agencies' employees for 15 years. The remaining 50 percent employees would have their emails saved for five years. It would cost the city $56 million over 30 years.
Under a third plan, 25 percent of employees would have their emails retained for 30 years. Another 25 percent would their emails saved for 15 years. The remaining 50 percent would have their emails preserved for five years. The total cost would be $66 million.
With four months to go, the city hasn't decided whether to retain the emails of other agencies, sources said.
On Monday evening, an agency spokeswoman issued a statement from Kahn:
"The city is always examining resource management issues," it said.
"In that context, DOITT and the Law Department have discussed the retention of e-mails in light of practices recognized by the federal rules of civil procedure, the federal government, many businesses, and the Sedona Conference, a leading legal organization comprised of judges, lawyers and other experts in the field.
"No new policy has been adopted or decided upon, and your description of discussions that have been had is incorrect and inaccurate."
Good government groups told DNAinfo New York that the emails should not be discarded under any circumstances — rather they should be a part of the city’s Municipal Archives, which traditionally preserves the papers and documents connected to a mayor’s administration.
“Any city employee, if while they're on the job, and they're writing letters — or in this case emails — and it's in the business capacity as a city employee, that shouldn't be purged,” civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel said. “That's public information. In due time, the people of New York should know what business has been.”
Siegel was part of a 2002 battle with Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, who after leaving office transferred his mayoral papers to a nonprofit he controlled rather than follow the usual protocol of handing them directly to the city’s Municipal Archives.
At the time, Giuliani said he was personally paying for a private archival firm to catalog the documents quickly.
Siegel and scholars charged that he was sanitizing the historical record of his administration by winnowing out blemishes. They threatened legal action and held protests demanding he return the papers to the archives. Eventually, the Giuliani documents were transposed to microfilm and delivered to the city archives.
“What's troubling is that this is sort of déjà vu,” Siegel told DNAinfo.
Bob Freeman, the executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, said the public generally has the right to obtain government emails under New York's Freedom of Information Law.
"Typically, email communications involving government ... would constitute agency records that fall within the Freedom of Information Law," Freeman said.
He added that government emails deserve a shelf life before they're destroyed.
"We cannot simply destroy or dispose of records," he said. "We have to maintain records for various periods of time that relate to a retention schedule."