Public records are the public’s property


By David Solomon, executive editor, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.

 New Hampshire has allowed public officials far too much discretion in the disposition of their documents and public papers upon leaving office.

 As the state Senate debates a bill requiring governors and congressmen to turn over a selection of their papers to the state archives, we learn that no governor for the past quarter century has left a record of memos, correspondence, calendars or other notes to posterity.

As far as we know, boxes full of material that would illuminate history and inform future generations have been destroyed, lost or kept private.

U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is a good example. Gregg has acknowledged he did not save documents and other materials from the time he served as governor between 1989 and 1993.

More recently, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, now a candidate for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary, has been pressed by political opponents for her calendar and e-mails, particularly any related to the investigation of Financial Resources Management.

The ill-fated investment firm is now under investigation for allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme that cost investors as much as $80 million.

But none of those records can be found because apparently it is state policy to delete the e-mail account of an employee upon departure.

 If that is indeed the standard policy, or worse, there is none, state officials need to develop one that ensures that important documents don’t just disappear because a state official chooses to leave office.

Action is needed on two fronts: Legislation now pending that would require governors and congressmen to turn “selected” papers over to the state’s archive needs to be amended so that all papers are turned over; and protections need to be put in place to prevent the mass destruction of e-mails and other documents in digital format. 

As for e-mails and other documents on state-owned computers, a policy should be developed and enforced to allow such material to be stored and cataloged for future access upon departure of high-level state employees.

There is no compelling argument for practices that destroy the public record rather than preserve it. Space is certainly not an issue. In the digital age, the entire contents of Ayotte’s hard drive would fit on a storage device the size of your thumb.

Journalists, historians, political operatives – or anyone else, for that matter – should be able to request and receive e-mail records, just as they were provided to The Telegraph when it made a recent request for e-mails from the Nashua mayor’s office.

None of this is to suggest that Ayotte did anything wrong, or that Gregg had something to hide. The attorney general’s office was following a procedure that has apparently been in place for years, while Gregg was certainly not the only governor to leave no records for the state archive.

But both cases served to highlight the urgent need for legislation and policy changes to protect the “source material” of history.


Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: