“Why are we being asked to run a race to the bottom when we’re already in first place?” Photo by Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash

On Wednesday, the City Council’s Rules Committee took up its final consideration of the changes to San Diego’s email record retention policy proposed by Mayor Todd Gloria and endorsed by City Attorney Mara Elliott, voting unanimously to move them to the full council as soon as possible to meet a Feb. 1, 2023, implementation date.

Foremost among these is the elimination of the current policy of forever retaining emails with one that mandates that most all city correspondence before Feb. 1, 2018, and going forward be permanently deleted five years to the day after being sent.

Opinion logo

This is being praised as a win for transparency because these changes aren’t as bad as shorter alternatives. Los Angeles retains emails for three years, San Diego County only 60 days, and many municipalities in between only two years. So the people of San Diego should feel grateful that we’re being offered such generous terms.

But why are we being asked to run a race to the bottom when we’re already in first place — such as it is? Exactly how are our current rights of access unsustainable? Why are we being asked to even consider how much less transparency is more?

Allegedly because of the supposed savings involved. According to staff projections of the cost for maintaining the current policy over the next five years of $1.476 million, these new changes would cost only $266,000.

But the City of San Diego’s budget for 2022 alone is $1.7 billion. So that projection of $1.476 million for maintaining the current indefinite email records retention policy averaged out would cost $296,000 a year — just 0.017% of our current annual spending.

It’s hard to imagine a justification more penny wise and pound foolish.

None of this appears to account for Moore’s Law, which holds that technological innovations exponentially increase data capacity while inversely decreasing costs roughly every 18 months.

And there are existing ways a different system for indefinite records retention could be implemented, which migrates from obsolete ones at lower costs with higher efficiency. But so far that option hasn’t been given consideration.

What price salvation?

How many of the scandals that have made news were detected more than five years after the fact? And how many records will be lost when, as it does now, the city routinely takes months or even years to produce as responsive to requests?

As many public comments in this meeting noted, if the proposed five-year limit had existed at the time the enormity of what has now become the 101 Ash Street scandal was first being uncovered, several documents critical to its revelation would have been lost before they could be found.

While there is an exception for records related to past lawsuits, there is good reason to suspect this will further incentivize delays by the city to forestall discovery past the point of no return to file others in the future.

In short, what’s obscured by all the hand-waving that this proposed change is about transparency is how it will bleed out accountability. When there are no records of how decisions are made and who made them when schemes go south, there’ll be no way to know who to blame or who to shame.

And given the histories of our current mayor and city attorney on California Public Records Act “reform,” it beggars belief that this effort has ever been about enhancing either transparency or accountability.

Members of the public — myself included — urged the rules committee members to adopt a compromise, to amend for a 10-year email retention period. This would address, among other concerns, that term limits have meant elected officials often serve for eight years and could manipulate records requests to conceal earlier malfeasance while still in office.

After making a show of discussion, they rejected it. We should reject compromise in return.

Mat Wahlstrom is a longtime resident of Hillcrest and community activist. He is the founder of Project for Open Government.