“There needs to be a good records management system in place to prevent records from being destroyed or lost in the future,” [VSEA Associate General Counsel Abilgail] Winters said. “I know [Sec’y of State] Jim Condos is committed to that, and I know this administration is committed to transparency, so I’m confident we’ll have a sound policy in the near future.”
Article published Jan 17, 2012
State officials produce lost emails
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — State officials have at last recovered a series of missing email correspondences at the Agency of Natural Resources, bringing to an end a long-running dispute that raised questions about Vermont’s open-records policies.
While the 16 emails produced by agency officials will close the final chapter on this yearlong legal ordeal, they reveal little about the laying off in 2010 of a staff scientist at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The documents we’ve received give us no more insight as to why this decision was made, who made it or what they were thinking of when they decided to lay off that position,” said Abigail Winters, associate general counsel for the Vermont State Employees Association.
The saga began in 2010, when the VSEA sought to obtain emails at ANR related to the elimination of the scientist position. Winters prevailed in the case, but, upon attempting to access the documents last August, was told by agency officials that the emails had been deleted.
Top officials in the Shumlin administration last month blamed protocols established under former Gov. James Douglas for the disappearance of the email records, which had reportedly been deleted shortly after the current governor took office last January.
The alleged destruction of the documents prompted Winters to pen a harshly worded letter to Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, in which she said she had been informed that it “is a practice of the state information technology personnel to permanently delete state email accounts of high-ranking government officials shortly after they leave office.”
Spaulding vehemently rejected the charge. The deletion of the emails, he said, occurred just weeks after Shumlin’s inauguration, while many top officials were still acclimating to their executive branch positions. Secretary of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz said the policy had since been rectified.
As the flap between the union and administration played out, officials at the Department of Information and Innovation searched for the correspondences in old data archives. And last week, the agency discovered 16 emails related to the VSEA’s public-records request.
The emails — mostly a series of pleas to then-Secretary of Natural Resources Jonathan Wood not to eliminate the position — don’t shed any light on the decision to axe the job.
“This is what they were able to recover, but we’re not sure if this is a comprehensive record,” Winters said. “My guess is there are more emails out there that we’ll just never see.”
Jon Groveman, general counsel for the Agency of Natural Resources, said he can’t guarantee that the 16 emails produced last week represent the entirety of the digital record.
“I can tell you it’s everything we were able to access, but I can’t say for certain that it’s everything that existed,” Groveman said.
Asked who was responsible for giving the order to delete the emails, Groveman said it wasn’t any one person, but rather a general policy.
“The way I understand it is, it was a policy that was in place under the prior administration where if somebody left the state, then after a two-week period the email account was deleted unless someone made a special request to save them,” Groveman said.
Winters said the episode exposed shortcomings in the state’s records retention policy. She said she’s optimistic though that an open-records initiative, spearheaded by Secretary of State Jim Condos and Commissioner of Information Richard Boes, will remedy the problem.
“There needs to be a good records management system in place to prevent records from being destroyed or lost in the future,” Winters said. “I know Jim Condos is committed to that, and I know this administration is committee to transparency, so I’m confident we’ll have a sound policy in the near future.”