This satire compares AACPS’s and Hillary Clinton’s email retention policies.
(Hint: Clinton’s compares favorably.)

 

Welcome.  I’ve been following the recent front page coverage of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s so-called “email scandal” with a chuckle.  Why a chuckle?  Because compared to my school district, Ms. Clinton’s email system is a model of transparency and accountability.

Get this: she is being charged with choosing what emails should and shouldn’t be considered public records and thus copied to a public server—decisions made without independent oversight.  How anyone who lives in the real world could bring such charges with a straight face is beyond me: what a joke!

At her March 10, 2012 press conference, Ms. Clinton said that “convenience” made her do it.  She didn’t want to have to carry around two devices, one for personal email and one for public email.

Everything else followed from there.  To avoid using multiple email devices, she combined her personal and public email into one account.  Then, since the government doesn’t provide personal email accounts, she set up her own.  Then, since it was her own personal email account, she had to make the determinations on behalf of the public concerning what emails to turn over.

To tell you the truth, I don’t buy Ms. Clinton’s premise that it is too difficult to carry around two devices, one with personal and one with public email.  It’s not unusual for my staff to use three or four devices to manage their email; for example, work computer, home computer, laptop, and smartphone.  My staffers with even minimal technical know-how can seamlessly switch back and forth from their personal to public email accounts.  And get this: as U.S. Secretary of State, Ms. Clinton never went anywhere without support staff trailing behind her.  My staff get no such support and our IT budget is a thousandth of hers. Yet my staff can run technological circles around hers; that is, when it comes to their own convenience.

Now it’s not my business to criticize the technological sophistication of Ms. Clinton’s staff.  I only want to point out that, from a PR perspective, she could learn a lesson or two from the public school district I manage.   Here is the way we do it:

Maryland’s right-to-know law doesn’t have an email or calendar entry retention policy.  This provides us the opportunity to only keep email and calendar entry backups on our central server for 30 days.  Why 30 days, you ask?  Well, Maryland’s Public Information Act gives us 30 days to respond to any request for a public record.  So presto, when a staffer gets a Public Information Act request, all that person has to do to prevent it from getting backed up to the central server is to delete it, archive it, or otherwise copy it to a different location than the one the central server searches for backup purposes.

In my district, we don’t even have a written email and calendar retention policy.  If Maryland’s Public Information Act doesn’t have one, I’m certainly not going to be the sucker that ends up creating one at my own expense.  We have plenty of communications, especially regarding politically sensitive subjects, that we don’t want made public.  And don’t worry, whatever the politicians might claim about their commitment to open government, they couldn’t care less (indeed, our politicians like secrecy, too!).

To be fair, there is a big difference between the legal environment in which Ms. Clinton and we operate.  She was operating in an environment where there was a clear written policy that emails pertaining to her official duties should be retained.  I’ve even been told that a U.S. ambassador was once fired for deleting emails that he was required by law to keep.

So that is why it’s so appropriate for me to be speaking before the PR Association of America about email public record keeping.  In my public school district, the email retention policy is all about managing PR.

This is the trick.  On the one hand, we live in a democracy. In a democracy, you want citizens to believe they can track what public officials are doing with their money.  The problem, of course, is that it’s your job as a PR official to make sure that doesn’t happen when the resulting information might be politically embarrassing.

We’ve thus developed some effective smoke & mirror routines to hide our email disappearing tricks.  One is that we use tape backups to back up our centralized email system.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  It’s 2015, our employees use state-of-the-art smartphones with unlimited lifetime email backup for their personal email (for free in the case of Google’s Gmail), but as a school district we’re using a 30-day tape backup designed to circumvent the Public Information Act.

A beauty of the tape system is that it costs requesters a small fortune ($44/hour) to access information off a tape, which must be located in a closet, inserted into a machine, and laboriously and slowly accessed (no speedy random access for us!).  After that process, it costs $74/hour to go over each responsive record to redact potentially non-disclosable information.

One result is that it costs requesters a small fortune to request information that, if it is controversial information, they are not going to get anyway.  And here’s the kicker: we don’t even have to delete the information because it’s not rational to request it in the first place.

For the sake of preventing controversial information from being publicly exposed, I’m willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year extra for our email system rather than, say, moving to cloud-based Gmail for government (as former County Executive Laura Neuman did).  What a delightfully archaic email backup system!  And since we’ve been wasting this money for countless years, it shows up as part of the regular budget and no one can even tell.  Indeed, we can even pretend to be saving money by not buying a new backup system.  Sweet!

Now there is another option that requesters might choose.  They can request that the email search be done directly on an employee’s work computer.  That’s okay with us, too.  It’s a simple matter for an employee to transfer responsive emails to a non-searchable, non-responsive device, such as an email program in the cloud or their smartphone or personal laptop: wink, wink; nod, nod.  Not only that, but we can charge requesters even more because instead of all the emails being on a central server, we now must send an employee (the same $44/hour employee) to every employee who might have a responsive email.  Kaching!  That can cost a requester a small fortune and, at the end of the process, they’re still guaranteed not to get the information we really don’t want to give them.  What a system!

Now, in truth, this system is not quite as good as I’ve suggested.  Emails, by their nature, are sent to different people.  Even worse, some emails may be sent to dozens or even hundreds of people.  If the emails are already out there and accessible to a reporter, the smart PR choice may be to release them in response to a Public Information Act request because you don’t want to look like you might be hiding something.

I don’t want to suggest that our methods are perfect.  There is still room for us to fine tune our email system for better PR.  But I think you’ll agree that we have done a remarkably good job with our email PR—at least better than Hillary Clinton.

–J.H. Snider, a political scientist, writes frequently about open government policy. An archive of his related articles can be found at http://elighthouse.info.

(Author’s note: A non-satirical critique of AACPS’s email PR practices, The Clinton Email Scandal: A Double Standard?, was published in the April 2, 2015 print edition of the Baltimore Sun and widely read by open government reformers throughout the United States; another related op-ed, Maryland’s Fake Open Government, was published in the April 18, 2010 print edition of the Washington Post.)


Source: Snider, J.H., AACPS Superintendent Arlotto’s Speech to the PR Association of America, Anne Arundel Patch, April 6, 2015.

 

 

Selected Public Information Act correspondence with the AACPS Public Information Office concerning access to the email of one high level AACPS Employee:
Superintendent George Arlotto

 

From: J.H. Snider
Sent: Thursday, April 16, 2015 2:06 PM
To: ‘Mosier, Bob’
Subject: RE: Public Information Act request

Dear Mr. Mosier:

Thank you for your reply.  I’d like to be clear about what you mean by your assertion that “Dr. Arlotto does not utilize a personal email address to conduct Anne Arundel County Public Schools business.”  Are you asserting that he doesn’t transfer or otherwise copy any of his AACPS emails to a personal email account or other private storage archive (which isn’t covered by a Public Information Act request) or are you asserting that when his emails are deleted from his AACPS email account they are also deleted from his personal accounts?

Please correct me if I misunderstand.  Superintendent Arlotto started working at AACPS in 2006, but there are no responsive emails to my Public Information Act request until early 2014.  Yet I know between 2006 and 2014 he received responsive emails, so that implies they were deleted from his AACPS email box.  At no point have you denied that he deleted the emails.  But what I’m specifically seeking confirmation of is your apparent claim that he doesn’t transfer or otherwise copy at least some of his emails to a private account before deleting them so they are exempt from a Public Information Act request.

Thank you for confirming that AACPS has no written email retention policy or penalty and enforcement policy for deleting emails in response to a Public Information Act request.  I had already read AACPS’s computer ethics and security policy and regulation, but I was worried that I had missed some other policy or regulation.  Now I know that I haven’t.

You say: “I will first need a date range for the emails you wish for me to research and compile.”  But I believe the dates I requested for email in my April 1, 2015 Public Information Act were unambiguous:

From January 1, 2006 until this Public Information Act request is fulfilled:

  1. All emails sent to or received from George Arlotto’s AACPS or personal email account for public business using your (Bob Mosier’s) AACPS email account that include the word “Snider” anywhere in the header or body of the message.
  1. All emails sent to or received from George Arlotto’s AACPS or personal email account for public business using your (Bob Mosier’s) personal email account but for AACPS related communications that include the word “Snider.”

If you think there is anything ambiguous in that phraseology, please let me know.

You say: “With regard to your subsequent but related request for emails from my emailbox, please be advised that a search of my personal emailbox shows no emails containing the word ‘Snider.’”  This would imply that you deleted the responsive emails because the responsive emails in Superintendent Arlotto’s email box from 2014 on were all from you.  I wanted to get them directly from you, in part because you sent the emails To: and From: yourself, so the names of the recipients in the Bcc: field were treated as secret information that would only be available from their sender, you.  I’m sure you remember the date on which you deleted the emails (they may also still be in your trash can or one of your personal accounts).  Please tell me the date.  By the way, I’d also be curious to know when you stopped including the names of recipients when you send out press clippings to AACPS staff, such as the Superintendent and Board of Education.  This seems to be a relatively new practice.

Please cite the rule you are using when you make the claim: “As to your requested search of my AACPS emailbox, you have exhausted the two hours of free labor allowed under the Act in the previous portion of this request.”  When my first Public Information Act request for responsive emails failed to turn up the requested information, I filed a second one based on using an entirely separate database: your emails.  If you are treating my second request as part of my first request, does that mean the 30 day clock starts when the first request was made (if so, you haven’t treated it that way, as you missed the 30-day cutoff).

I’m assuming that when you calculate these two-hour estimates you are including time spent on activities other than actually searching for, reading, and forwarding me the responsive documents (e.g., chatting with Superintendent Arlotto about how to respond).  Given that the searching and forwarding can be done in a few seconds and the volume of responsive documents has been negligible, I cannot see how you could have spent close to 2 hours on such activities.

Why would you give me an estimate as to how much it would cost you to search your email for responsive documents when you have already told me you have no responsive documents?  I must be missing something.  Please enlighten me as to your intended meaning.    Of course, if you do have responsive emails, then please send me the number (most considerate would be the list view of the responsive emails in your email program) and the estimated cost of your sending them to me electronically.  Perhaps your generosity in offering me an estimate is akin to your repeated generosity in offering to charge me hundreds if not thousands of dollars to search the central email backup, only to find that the individuals whose emails are requested are effectively granted the option, with no AACPS penalty or enforcement mechanism, to delete any potentially controversial emails from that backup (e.g., ask Sarah Pelham what happened to her emails and calendar entries).

Sincerely,

J.H. Snider


 

 

From: Mosier, Bob
Sent: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 2:43 PM
To: J.H. Snider
Subject: RE: Public Information Act request

April 15, 2015

Dear Mr. Snider:

This communication follows your response to documents delivered to you on April 1, 2015, as you requested under the Public Information Act, Annotated Code of Maryland, General Provisions Article (GP) § 4-101, et seq.

I did, in fact, neglect to put the link to the Board of Education policy regarding computer ethics and security. The policy and regulation are linked here.

With regard to the remainder of your comments, I have fulfilled your original request. To clarify one point for you, however, Dr. Arlotto does not utilize a personal email address to conduct Anne Arundel County Public Schools business.

With regard to your subsequent but related request for emails from my emailbox, please be advised that a search of my personal emailbox shows no emails containing the word “Snider.”

As to your requested search of my AACPS emailbox, you have exhausted the two hours of free labor allowed under the Act in the previous portion of this request. I will formulate an estimated amount of reimbursement required from you to fulfill this added portion of your request. However, I will first need a date range for the emails you wish for me to research and compile.

I am going to assume that, as you indicated in your prior emails, you also do not wish for us to restore any emailboxes to fulfill this request.

Pursuant to GPA §4-362, in the event you disagree with any determination regarding this Maryland Public Information Act request you may seek judicial review by filing a complaint with the Circuit Court in Anne Arundel County.

If you have further questions, please feel free to contact me at 410-222-5312 or by email at rmosier@aacps.org.

Sincerely,

Bob Mosier
Chief Communications Officer
Anne Arundel County Public Schools


 

 

From: J.H. Snider
Sent: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 12:19 AM
To: Mosier, Bob
Subject: RE: Public Information Act request

Dear Mr. Mosier:

Today, April 15, 2015, marks the 30th day since my March 16, 2015 Public Information Act request to you concerning Superintendent George Arlotto’s emails and email retention policy.  Unless I hear otherwise from you, I shall assume you consider your April 1, 2015 response not an April Fool’s Day joke but a complete fulfillment of that request.

Today also marks the halfway mark since my April 1, 2015 follow-up Public Information Act request concerning Superintendent Arlotto’s emails.  Please let me know whether you intend to fully comply within the 30 day response period contained in the Act.  A notable problem I have had with your recent responses is the implicit claim that you are completely responding to my Public Information Act request in good faith while in fact selectively ignoring critical parts of it.  Needless to say, that practice is very frustrating for an information requester.

Sincerely,

J.H. Snider


 

 

From: J.H. Snider
Sent: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 4:17 PM
To: ‘Mosier, Bob’
Subject: RE: Public Information Act request

Dear Mr. Mosier:

The earliest email you sent me earlier today is dated February 26, 2014, and the earliest (and only) calendar item is dated November 11, 2014.  However, my Public Information Act request seeks such information from January 1, 2006, and there were both emails and calendar items for George Arlotto with responsive documents between January 1, 2006 and February 26, 2014 that should have been sent to me.  Your response would thus indicate that Dr. Arlotto has not been retaining his email and calendar items back to the time when he started working for AACPS.  Is that correct?  If so, your response should provide me with the dates for which Dr. Arlotto has erased his emails and calendar entries on his office computer.

I would infer from the lack of any emails from Dr. Arlotto (all the emails were from you to him) that he at least occasionally uses a private email address to conduct AACPS business.  Is that an incorrect inference?  Have you never sent an email to Dr. Arlotto at his personal email address?

I would infer from the lack of any emails with Dr. Arlotto in the cc: or bcc: field from others such as Sally Pelham or the Board of Education that you were the only individual sending responsive emails to Dr. Arlotto.  Is that an incorrect inference?

Finally, I would infer from your lack of any response to my Public Information Act request, question #4, that AACPS has no written policy “concerning the use of personal email and calendar accounts by AACPS employees, including George Arlotto, for conducting AACPS business.”  If I should infer anything else from you not providing me with any responsive documents to question #4, please let me know.

The responsive emails relating to my family (as opposed to, say, Jane Snider) were, with a single exception, from you to you.  In other words, the names of the recipients were treated as confidential information.  Of course, I presume that Dr. Arlotto was a recipient on those emails because otherwise you would not have sent me the emails in response to my Public Information Act request.  To me, it seems inefficient and discourteous for the Board of Education and others not to have the recipient email addresses included in an email, even when you address an email to “Board Members/Mrs. Perkins.” For example, what if they wanted to quickly respond to one of your emails and observations with the reply button.

Please send me the cc: and bcc: information missing from your emails to Dr. Arlotto dated February 26, 2014, February 26, 2014, October 26, 2014, December 9, 2014, December 15, 2014, December 16, 2014, January 9, 2005, and January 10, 2015. Since you rarely respond to such informal follow-up queries from me, I’ll make it a formal Public Information Act request:

Under the Maryland Public Information Act, State Government Article (SG) §§ 10-611, et seq., I request a copy of the following information concerning Superintendent George Arlotto’s public records. From January 1, 2006 until this Public Information Act request is fulfilled:

  1. All emails sent to or received from George Arlotto’s AACPS or personal email account for public business using your (Bob Mosier’s) AACPS email account that include the word “Snider” anywhere in the header or body of the message.
  1. All emails sent to or received from George Arlotto’s AACPS or personal email account for public business using your (Bob Mosier’s) personal email account but for AACPS related communications that include the word “Snider.”

Please do not conduct the search on AACPS’s centralized email backup system as that would, at best, only cover a negligible fraction of the potentially responsive public records.

Please email the responsive records to net@jhsnider.net.

If you deny any part of this request, please cite each specific Public Information Act exemption that justifies your denial of the information.

I look forward to your timely response.

Sincerely,

J.H. Snider


 

 

From: J.H. Snider
Sent: Monday, March 30, 2015 11:30 AM
To: ‘Mosier, Bob’
Subject: RE: Public Information Act request

Dear Mr. Mosier:

In response to my Public Information Act request (see below), please let me know whether you intend to comply within the 30 day response period contained in the Act.  In the past, you have occasionally sought to extend the response period to 60 days by sending me a cost estimate near the end of the 30 day response period and thus, according to your interpretation of the Act, resetting the 30 day clock to zero.

Sincerely,

J.H. Snider


 

 

From: J.H. Snider
Sent: Monday, March 16, 2015 2:39 PM
To: Mosier, Bob
Subject: Public Information Act request

Dear Mr. Mosier:

Under the Maryland Public Information Act, State Government Article (SG) §§ 10-611, et seq., I request a copy of the following information concerning Superintendent George Arlotto’s public records. From January 1, 2006 until this Public Information Act request is fulfilled:

  1. All emails sent to or received from George Arlotto using his official AACPS email account that include the word “Snider” anywhere in the header or body of the message.
  1. All emails sent to or received from George Arlotto using his personal email account but for AACPS related communications that include the word “Snider.”
  1. All calendar entries for George Arlotto in either his official AACPS or personal calendar program that include the word “Snider” anywhere in the entry.
  1. Any written policy that AACPS has concerning the use of personal email and calendar accounts by AACPS employees, including George Arlotto, for conducting AACPS business.

To search for the responsive emails, you may use the search feature associated with any modern email program, including Arlotto’s personal email program used for AACPS-related communications. The same search method may be applied to the calendar program, nowadays usually part of the email program, which keeps Arlotto’s calendar. The entire search process, once the relevant program has been opened and “Snider” entered in the search field, should take no more than a few seconds. The responsive records can then be forwarded to you in bulk for review. That additional step should also take only a few seconds.

As you may know, every major newspaper in the country has recently been running stories about public access to public officials’ email. It is widely regarded as an issue of great public importance. An example from our local paper of record is Local officials vary on private email use for public business, Capital, March 15, 2015.

Please do not conduct the search on AACPS’s centralized email backup system as that would, at best, only cover a negligible fraction of the potentially responsive public records.

Please email the responsive records to net@jhsnider.net.

If you deny any part of this request, please cite each specific Public Information Act exemption that justifies your denial of the information.

I look forward to your timely response.

Sincerely,

J.H. Snider