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Fenty Drops Plan to Purge City E-Mails After 6 Months

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty informed council members via e-mail that he was revoking his executive order.
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty informed council members via e-mail that he was revoking his executive order. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)

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By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) withdrew his executive order to purge the majority of city e-mails yesterday, hours after two D.C. Council members announced they would introduce legislation to delay the policy from being instituted in January.

"The Council of the District of Columbia has raised reasonable concerns about our email retention policy and after careful consideration I have decided to return to our previous policy of retaining all District Government emails indefinitely," Fenty said in a statement.

Earlier yesterday, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said the council would vote on a bill today to ensure that the mayor's policy conforms to the city's laws on public records. Eight others on the 13-member council have co-sponsored the bill.

"On January 5th, with the punch of a button, many important vital public records would have been lost," said Schwartz, who wrote the bill. "We want to clarify that e-mails are included in public records."

The bill would also give the council 45 days to review any other administration recommendations on public records.

Fenty uses three BlackBerrys to communicate with his top aides, residents and the council. He even sent news of his decision to revoke the executive order to council members via e-mail.

The mayor had faced mounting pressure from civic groups and several council members. Opponents argued that deleting the e-mails would not be in the public interest.

The debate on how to handle the growing e-mail correspondence among government officials surfaced during the summer when Fenty said most electronic messages would be deleted. He described it as a cost-saving measure, although officials did not say how much it would save.

The policy would have kept e-mails for six months and on backup tapes for eight weeks, said D.C. General Counsel Peter Nickles, who helped draft the policy. There was also a provision for preserving e-mails that might be needed for legal matters. The public records office would have determined which e-mails held historical significance.

Other jurisdictions have adopted similar e-mail deletion policies. Philadelphia retains e-mails for 30 days; Cincinnati keeps them for 90 days. In Virginia, the governor's e-mails are eventually sent to the state archives. A Maryland spokesman said he was unaware of a state e-mail retention policy.

Last month, the D.C. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent Fenty a letter asking him to postpone implementing the policy because six months was not enough time to make sure critical information was not destroyed.

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), a law professor, called the mayor's six-month deletion policy "unreasonable."

Cheh recently met with City Administrator Dan Tangherlini and offered to help establish a policy that would not archive every e-mail.

"Just like we used to rely on regular mail to uncover misdeeds, now we have to rely on e-mails," she said. "People have to have confidence that we're not hiding things."

Community activist Dorothy Brizill of D.C. Watch, who first shed light on the mayor's policy, said she was pleased Fenty changed his mind.

"What we need to do is stand back and put experts and lawyers and citizens together to look at our e-mail retention and management system," she said. "We [also] need to make sure that all communications between and among District officials are captured on District government servers."


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