Paper takes up space. And after a while, it can take up a lot of space.
It's why government bodies limit the amount of time that certain documents need to be stored, so that they don't have to find a home for every piece of paper, no matter how irrelevant or out-of-date, that they generate.
But finding storage space for emails generated by and sent to government employees is not a problem for the state of New York. So it makes one wonder why the state is in such a hurry to destroy them.
Most of the state's emails are on a system that has virtually unlimited space. Yet according to an article published last week in ProPublica — an independent, nonprofit investigative journalism organization — the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo automatically purges the emails of thousands of state employees, with limited exceptions, after a mere 90 days.
For a governor who ran for election on a platform of transparency, this is akin to painting over a window then covering it with plywood.
The general counsel of the state Office of Information Technology services, in a memo issued last year, said the emails were automatically being deleted in order to cut down on the "enormous amount of email data" generated by the state, according to the article.
But what they don't say is why the state needs to cut down on it.
Each user of the state's email system has about 50 gigabytes of space available for email storage. That's a large amount of space. How large, you ask? OK. You know those cardboard boxes that bankers use to store their files in? Each of these boxes can store about 2,000 pieces of paper. Fifty gigabytes of computer space has the capacity to hold about 500 of those boxes, or the equivalent of 10 million pieces of paper. Per employee.
Does that sound like the state has a problem find a place to store emails?
Many government emails contain communication between public employees and between government employees and outside individuals that is subject to the state Freedom of Information Law. If there was no email, this correspondence would be on a piece of paper somewhere. Today, its mostly likely to be on an electronic file. With few exceptions for personal privacy and litigation, these records must be made available to the public through a FOIL request.
So what's the big deal about the 90-day cut-off?
Public officials are given time to respond to FOIL requests, time to respond to appeals upon denial of requests, and time to produce the actual records. Even a simple FOIL request can take a couple of weeks or more.
If records are being destroyed automatically every 90 days, that hardly gives the public time to obtain the records they want under FOIL. If a reporter or a citizen learns of something two or three months after the record has been produced, that document might very well have been destroyed under the governor's policy by the time the request is made.
These communications can provide insight into how government works and can provide key information for investigations into government operations.
Other states have significantly more stringent policies for retaining records. Some require that relevant emails be kept for a number of years, and few states automatically purge their email files like New York does.
If the governor is truly interested in transparency, he'll eliminate the automatic destruction of emails. He'll then instruct his staff to come up with a reasonable and easy-to-follow standard for employees to follow so they know which emails constitute public records that must be kept and for how long, and which emails they may discard without interfering with the public's right to know.
The state doesn't have to build warehouses to maintain public documents.
It does have to build trust.
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on oil trains and the safety of railroad bridges.
With freight trains likely to rumble through the Rochester area laden with combustible crude oil for the foreseeable future, the private company that operates the rails, and state and federal authorities who provide oversight, must make safety a top priority. Reducing the volatility of the crude oil and ensuring local railroad bridges are not structurally compromised are two steps in the right direction.
As staff writer Steve Orr detailed in Sunday's watchdog report, railroad bridges have long fallen through the cracks of government oversight. As a result, some of them have developed cracks of their own — and worse. The CSX bridge that carries trains over North Main Street in the village of Pittsford, for example, is riddled with loose bolts, rust and corrosion.
Company officials insist that, optics aside, the bridge — one of several in Monroe County that are more than 100 years old — is structurally sound. But they won't make public copies of inspection reports, and the bridges get no second pair of eyes: Neither state nor federal agencies regularly inspect railroad bridges or receive inspection reports.
Village residents deserve greater assurances, especially since the rail line is now used regularly to transport crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in Montana and North Dakota to East Coast refineries. After all, a number of rail accidents have taken place in the past year, resulting in fires and explosions — including the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a train derailment and explosion killed 47 residents.
With such incidents in mind, officials in North Dakota are looking at requiring crude oil to be partially refined — which would make it less volatile — before being transported. This is a much-needed extra safety step, given that nearly 60 percent of the 1 million-plus gallons of crude pumped from North Dakota alone each day is shipped by rail.
Other security measures have been adopted. CSX has increased track inspections and emergency preparedness training. New York has decided to share schedules for oil-carrying trains with the public. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation is taking public comment on tougher proposed safety rules that would see outdated tankers retired or retrofitted, lower speed limits, better braking standards and other measures. These improvements must be expedited.
The number of rail cars transporting crude has increased some 400 percent since 2008. Safety standards have not kept up. Private, state and federal interests must fast-track security improvements.
The Times Herald-Record of Middletown on Robin Williams' suicide and committing resources to help the mentally ill.
The suicide of Robin Williams has inspired another national dialogue about mental illness. If a man who was so talented, so admired, so successful could also be so depressed to the point where he would take his own life, it reminds us we need to be more aware of the difficulties facing people in our own lives, to help them get the help they need.
The stories raise awareness of something that is common knowledge among mental health professionals but comes as a shock to others. As a report in The New York Times put it, "More than 70 percent of all suicides in the United States are white men, most of them in their middle years, and many take their lives in the wake of some loss, whether professional, personal or physical."
This impulse to help more people get more care is reminiscent of the one that greeted the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut a year and a half ago. If a troubled young man had received the treatment he needed, perhaps so many youngsters and their brave teachers might not have been shot down.
And that came just six months after a man who had been receiving psychiatric treatment killed a dozen and injured scores more in a shooting in a Colorado movie theater.
Mental illness is hard to diagnose and hard to treat. No one ever argues that we need less access, but few in a position to make a difference have confronted the reality of just how hard it can be to get treatment. Hospitals close inpatient mental health units, states cut budgets. It all gets lost in the shuffle.
Scary statistics surface from time to time in news stories. Last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told Congress that 55 percent of the nation's 3,100 counties had no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers. The report blamed budget cuts and an increase in those leaving the profession.