Philly Clout: Why is city still deleting emails after 50 days?

Philadelphia Soda Tax
PhillyClout: Today, storage space for all of city government's email correspondence is relatively cheap. Here, City Councilman Derek S. Green (left), shakes hands with Mayor Kenney in November.

Clout has a bone to pick with City Hall. What else is new, right?

But this one's important, the solution is simple, and anyone who values government transparency in Philadelphia should join us in this particular bone-picking.

We're talking about the disappearing emails.

The city is routinely deleting most employee emails that are more than 50 days old, a policy relic from when email storage was pricey, Mayor Kenney's spokesman Mike Dunn confirmed this week.

It's an outdated system and needs to be changed ASAP. Here's why:

Today, storage space is relatively cheap. Google will give you 15 gigabytes free!

That's why, for instance, if you happened to drink half a bottle of Jameson one lonely winter night in 2010 and poured your heart out to your ex-girlfriend in an overwrought email that you regretted the next morning, this hypothetical email could remain in this hypothetical ex-girlfriend's Gmail inbox today.

Not that any such thing ever happened.

But the city's Office of Innovation and Technology still starts city employees with a measly 200 megabytes (read: not nearly enough) of email space, and auto-deletes most emails that aren't manually archived.

So if a reporter files a Right-to-Know request today for city emails from mid-November, those emails could be gone - forever.

Shane Creamer, executive director of the city's Ethics Board, said the board has run into this problem in the course of its investigations.

"We continue to see instances where emails are not available to the board because they haven't been archived, and I think the retention policy plays a role in some cases," Creamer said.

This also can make it difficult to conduct city business, as one City Council staffer told Clout: "You ask people to do things, they don't, and then they are like, 'Oh, I don't have your email anymore. Auto-delete,' when you try to follow up."

Philadelphia Magazine's Holly Otterbein - a Daily News alum, naturally - first reported on this in 2014. Mayor Michael Nutter's administration, of course, insisted at the time that the email purge wasn't a problem.

But it was then. And it definitely is in 2017.

Pittsburgh switched to a cloud-based storage system years ago and its employees now have 50 gigabytes of email space, said Mayor Bill Peduto's spokesman, Timothy McNulty.

"That allows for multiple years' worth of emails, so there have been no cases of Pittsburgh government workers having to delete email" to free inbox space, McNulty said.

He said the city frequently receives Right-to-Know requests from reporters and other people around the country "for emails that are a couple weeks old to a few years old." Producing them is generally not a problem.

Prior to the upgrade, Pittsburgh employees had a small amount of email space, similar to Philadelphia, and would have to delete emails to make space for new ones.

"Obviously," McNulty said, "that wasn't working very well."

It's not working very well here, either. So what's Kenney going do about it? Apparently, more than Nutter.

Dunn said Wednesday that the mayor's office reviewed the retention policy when Kenney took office last year and exempted 19 senior employees - including Kenney himself - from the auto-delete policy.

"The 50-day purge was started some time ago when storage was more expensive," Dunn said in an email that, we presume, will disappear by the end of February. "But your inquiry about the matter of the 50-day delete raises valid questions, and the administration is open to reviewing that policy."

Erik Arneson, executive director of the state's Office of Open Records, said that a 50-day policy isn't necessarily a problem, but that treating all emails the same - from debating lunch plans to debating legislation - probably isn't the best retention policy.

"It would make good sense for somebody in the General Assembly to start a conversation about taking a comprehensive look at our record retention requirements in the state, because they were all written before the Right-to-Know Law existed," Arneson said.

Great idea. In the meantime, let's move Philadelphia's emails to the cloud, shall we?

If anyone needs advice, just give Mayor Peduto's IT folks a ring in Pittsburgh.

Staff writer William Bender contributed to this column.