Thursday, August 26, 2010

Maine among states with inadequate access for email open record requests

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting filed a state open records request for emails from 2005-2007 between the Public Utilities Commission chairman and representatives of wind company First Wind. PUC attorney Joanne Stenack told the center the request could be completed for $10,000, Naomi Schalit of the center reports. "The center then asked for a waiver of the $10,000 cost, under provisions in the state’s FOAA that allow waivers to be granted for noncommercial use of public information," Schalit writes. "They refused to grant the waiver and revised their estimate of the cost for the Center to get the information to $36,239.52." (Read more)

Now what seemed initially like an effort by the PUC to avoid complying with the request may actually be evidence of an archaic email system plaguing, not only Maine but other state governments across the country. "Here's the really surprising thing the Portland Phoenix has learned from just a little research into the matter: the estimate reflects the state's actual cost to extract the information from its e-mail archive, which is so cumbersome that it's next to impossible to actually use," Jeff Inglis reports for the Phoenix. Greg McNeal, Maine's chief information officer, told Inglis responding to a similar request would take one of his two e-mail technicians an entire year of full-time work.

"McNeal calls the backup mechanism 'archaic,' and says he has been lobbying to improve it for some time now, but the state lacks both funding and a working example to adapt to Maine's needs," Inglis writes. McNeal and state archivist David Cheever say the problem isn't unique to Maine either, which has "roughly 12,000 state e-mail accounts, with thousands upon thousands of actual messages, which must all be backed up in a way that must somehow or other be accessible to the public and yet secure from destruction," Inglis writes.

"Neither of them is aware of a state government that has a timely, inexpensive storage-and-retrieval method for state officials' e-mail messages," Inglis writes. Cheever said the state can't afford to experiment with other systems: "We don't have the money to be wrong," he told Inglis. Schalit told the Phoenix if the claim is true Maine's system is "mind-boggling for anybody who has an interest in history. If this is the kind of system they have installed for government business, there's something wrong with the system." (Read more)

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