On Guard: Think Hillary has email problems? So does Mayor Lee 

Mayor Ed Lee drafted an email policy last year allowing the Mayor's Office to delete any email deemed "routine" at his discretion. - MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner File Photo
  • Mayor Ed Lee drafted an email policy last year allowing the Mayor's Office to delete any email deemed "routine" at his discretion.
As former Mayor Willie Brown famously says, the “e” in email stands for “evidence.” Now politicians sneaking sensitive records away from the public eye are drawing scrutiny.

Potential presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton drew fire last week for conducting work as secretary of state using her personal email account for years. She deleted 32,000 of those emails, which she claimed were personal.

And state legislators are coming down like hammers on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in New York for his policy of deleting government emails after 90 days.

So the nation, and New York, are getting tough on politicians who hide work emails — but is San Francisco?

Our very own Mayor Ed Lee drafted an email policy last year allowing the Mayor’s Office to delete any email deemed “routine,” at his discretion.

These messages are records that the public is entitled by state law to see. But Lee’s policy essentially says any email he doesn’t like can vanish.

Click. Gone.

A brief highlight of recent stories relying on political emails shows their importance: The San Francisco Examiner recently used emails to reveal how the police union bullied city supervisors, and that The City once planned to give Uber potentially unfair access to its wheelchair taxi services.

SF Weekly’s Joe Eskenazi used emails to dig out questionable spending on the new Central Subway tunnel.

The public has legal right to government emails to verify how their tax dollars are spent.

The most troubling section of mayor’s Records and Document Retention and Disposal Schedule says public records “which have no legal significance may be destroyed when no longer needed.”

“Specific examples include ... routine emails,” among other documents. Many government sunshine-law advocates said this is a bad idea.

Last year, James Wheaton, senior counsel for the First Amendment Project, told me “We call these things ‘paper trails’ ... sources can be less than reliable, but an email speaks for itself.”

Now that Clinton is under investigation, I figured it’s a perfect opportunity to ask our good mayor if he’s “pulling a Hillary.”

“Well, I have my official emails on my official Blackberry that’s city issued, that I have open to all of the record-keeping requirements we have,” Lee told me at a news conference late last week. “Then I have my private [email] for private stuff. I accomplish that by having two phones.”

He doesn’t use his private email account to send work emails, he said. “No, no. That’s not what that’s for ... I respond to a lot of emails and they’re all on public record.”

I asked him how he determines which emails are “routine,” and subject to deletion. “Well, that’s probably subject to some legal interpretation,” he said.

OK, now we’re getting somewhere.

“You’re the guy with your finger over the delete button, so what are they?” I asked.

“Routine? They could be stuff I get every single day,” the mayor said. “Reports I get on a constant basis, I have a number of departments that report to me. You know, they’ll say this month’s report on this is so and so. I read it, go over it and ...”

That’s when the mayor’s spokeswoman, Christine Falvey, intervened.

“I think the mayor answered the question, I think we’re done,” she said, and led him away, saying he had a tight schedule to keep.

I wrote the Mayor’s Office late last year asking for any records of when people asked for Mayor’s Office emails and got them, during a three-week period in July.

The Mayor’s Office of Communications sent over 25 PDF files of emails requests and responses. The 1,098 pages were a lot to slog through, but using a search tool from the Investigative Reporters and Editors group called DocumentCloud, I scoured each document for relevant information, including emails from the mayor.

So how many of Lee’s own emails did the public get from these lawful records requests?

Zero.

Not a single one of Lee’s emails were released to the public in that period, despite a thousand pages worth of requests.

I then requested any communications to or from the Mayor’s Office and Ron Conway between May 1 to July 11 because Lee had high-profile public interactions with the famous tech investing billionaire during that period. Surely he coordinated his schedule with Conway via email at some point, right?

“This office does not have any documents,” Lee’s office responded.

The only mayor email we were given over the past year was a response Lee gave to transportation advocacy groups last week.

It looked more like a press release than a message, and was sent a few days after I asked the mayor pointed questions on his email policy. Read into that what you will.

So is Mayor Ed Lee pulling a Hillary?

If the mayor wants to reassure the public, I invite him to let me sit down at his office and look through his emails, personally.

Mr. Mayor, if you take me up on it I’ll even buy the coffee.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

San Francisco Mayor's Office Record Retention Policy 3.7.14 by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Bio:
Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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