- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Daily Gazette of Schenectady on government transparency and New York’s policy for purging emails.

Aug. 17

One of the big problems government bodies have always had with retaining public information is having enough room to store it.

Paper takes up space. And after a while, it can take up a lot of space.

It’s why government bodies limit the amount of time that certain documents need to be stored, so that they don’t have to find a home for every piece of paper, no matter how irrelevant or out-of-date, that they generate.

But finding storage space for emails generated by and sent to government employees is not a problem for the state of New York. So it makes one wonder why the state is in such a hurry to destroy them.

Most of the state’s emails are on a system that has virtually unlimited space. Yet according to an article published last week in ProPublica - an independent, nonprofit investigative journalism organization - the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo automatically purges the emails of thousands of state employees, with limited exceptions, after a mere 90 days.

For a governor who ran for election on a platform of transparency, this is akin to painting over a window then covering it with plywood.

The general counsel of the state Office of Information Technology services, in a memo issued last year, said the emails were automatically being deleted in order to cut down on the “enormous amount of email data” generated by the state, according to the article.

But what they don’t say is why the state needs to cut down on it.

Each user of the state’s email system has about 50 gigabytes of space available for email storage. That’s a large amount of space. How large, you ask? OK. You know those cardboard boxes that bankers use to store their files in? Each of these boxes can store about 2,000 pieces of paper. Fifty gigabytes of computer space has the capacity to hold about 500 of those boxes, or the equivalent of 10 million pieces of paper. Per employee.

Does that sound like the state has a problem find a place to store emails?

Many government emails contain communication between public employees and between government employees and outside individuals that is subject to the state Freedom of Information Law. If there was no email, this correspondence would be on a piece of paper somewhere. Today, its mostly likely to be on an electronic file. With few exceptions for personal privacy and litigation, these records must be made available to the public through a FOIL request.

So what’s the big deal about the 90-day cut-off?

Public officials are given time to respond to FOIL requests, time to respond to appeals upon denial of requests, and time to produce the actual records. Even a simple FOIL request can take a couple of weeks or more.

If records are being destroyed automatically every 90 days, that hardly gives the public time to obtain the records they want under FOIL. If a reporter or a citizen learns of something two or three months after the record has been produced, that document might very well have been destroyed under the governor’s policy by the time the request is made.

These communications can provide insight into how government works and can provide key information for investigations into government operations.

Other states have significantly more stringent policies for retaining records. Some require that relevant emails be kept for a number of years, and few states automatically purge their email files like New York does.

If the governor is truly interested in transparency, he’ll eliminate the automatic destruction of emails. He’ll then instruct his staff to come up with a reasonable and easy-to-follow standard for employees to follow so they know which emails constitute public records that must be kept and for how long, and which emails they may discard without interfering with the public’s right to know.

The state doesn’t have to build warehouses to maintain public documents.

It does have to build trust.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/gnLLVa

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on oil trains and the safety of railroad bridges.

Aug. 19

With freight trains likely to rumble through the Rochester area laden with combustible crude oil for the foreseeable future, the private company that operates the rails, and state and federal authorities who provide oversight, must make safety a top priority. Reducing the volatility of the crude oil and ensuring local railroad bridges are not structurally compromised are two steps in the right direction.

As staff writer Steve Orr detailed in Sunday’s watchdog report, railroad bridges have long fallen through the cracks of government oversight. As a result, some of them have developed cracks of their own - and worse. The CSX bridge that carries trains over North Main Street in the village of Pittsford, for example, is riddled with loose bolts, rust and corrosion.

Company officials insist that, optics aside, the bridge - one of several in Monroe County that are more than 100 years old - is structurally sound. But they won’t make public copies of inspection reports, and the bridges get no second pair of eyes: Neither state nor federal agencies regularly inspect railroad bridges or receive inspection reports.

Village residents deserve greater assurances, especially since the rail line is now used regularly to transport crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in Montana and North Dakota to East Coast refineries. After all, a number of rail accidents have taken place in the past year, resulting in fires and explosions - including the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a train derailment and explosion killed 47 residents.

With such incidents in mind, officials in North Dakota are looking at requiring crude oil to be partially refined - which would make it less volatile - before being transported. This is a much-needed extra safety step, given that nearly 60 percent of the 1 million-plus gallons of crude pumped from North Dakota alone each day is shipped by rail.

Other security measures have been adopted. CSX has increased track inspections and emergency preparedness training. New York has decided to share schedules for oil-carrying trains with the public. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation is taking public comment on tougher proposed safety rules that would see outdated tankers retired or retrofitted, lower speed limits, better braking standards and other measures. These improvements must be expedited.

The number of rail cars transporting crude has increased some 400 percent since 2008. Safety standards have not kept up. Private, state and federal interests must fast-track security improvements.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/bB6HkF

The Times Herald-Record of Middletown on Robin Williams’ suicide and committing resources to help the mentally ill.

Aug. 17

The suicide of Robin Williams has inspired another national dialogue about mental illness. If a man who was so talented, so admired, so successful could also be so depressed to the point where he would take his own life, it reminds us we need to be more aware of the difficulties facing people in our own lives, to help them get the help they need.

The stories raise awareness of something that is common knowledge among mental health professionals but comes as a shock to others. As a report in The New York Times put it, “More than 70 percent of all suicides in the United States are white men, most of them in their middle years, and many take their lives in the wake of some loss, whether professional, personal or physical.”

This impulse to help more people get more care is reminiscent of the one that greeted the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut a year and a half ago. If a troubled young man had received the treatment he needed, perhaps so many youngsters and their brave teachers might not have been shot down.

And that came just six months after a man who had been receiving psychiatric treatment killed a dozen and injured scores more in a shooting in a Colorado movie theater.

Mental illness is hard to diagnose and hard to treat. No one ever argues that we need less access, but few in a position to make a difference have confronted the reality of just how hard it can be to get treatment. Hospitals close inpatient mental health units, states cut budgets. It all gets lost in the shuffle.

Scary statistics surface from time to time in news stories. Last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told Congress that 55 percent of the nation’s 3,100 counties had no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers. The report blamed budget cuts and an increase in those leaving the profession.

For those fortunate enough to live in a community that still had practicing mental health professionals, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that many are in such demand that they no longer accept new patients and many do not accept private insurance.

The Healthcare Association of New York State found last year that 58 percent of hospitals and health systems had a shortage of psychiatrists, with nearly 40 percent of those still on staff close to retirement. Nationally, the Association of American Medical Colleges found that 57 percent of practicing psychiatrists are at least 55 years old.

The well-known, oft-talked-about stigma of mental illness shows up in other ways as well with unemployment rates running as high as 80 percent and with jails finding that half to two-thirds of those being locked up on any given day have mental health issues, many of them serious and untreated.

Each sad or tragic story leads to the same statistics and the same conclusion. While people can help those in their lives cope with mental illness, the matching public commitment of resources has not come close to keeping up with the needs.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/bYucff

The Staten island Advance on differences in the reactions to police-related deaths in New York and Missouri.

Aug. 15

We suppose no one should be surprised that just a few weeks after Eric Garner died on a Tompkinsville street after police used force to try to place him under arrest, provoking a strong reaction in the city’s minority community, there has been violent unrest in the Midwest over a teenager in a mostly black suburb of St. Louis who also died after he was shot by police there.

It’s a sad fact that, in our society, the inevitable interactions between people in low-income, mostly minority communities and the police, who rarely live in those same communities and are charged with preserving order amid the chaos of those tough streets, will occasionally produce flare-ups of hostility and worse.

Mr. Garner died after he protested his imminent arrest and was grabbed from behind around the neck by a police officer and pulled to the ground and then sat upon by several cops. People can quibble over whether it constituted a choke-hold officially banned by the New York Police Department, but the officer clearly did have his arm around Mr. Garner’s throat as the latter was pulled backward to the ground. Whether such force was necessary, especially so early in an encounter with an unarmed man, remains a matter for considerable debate.

The tragic incident has led to protest marches and - in our opinion - baseless calls by civil rights leaders, most notably the Rev. Al Sharpton, for a federal investigation. It remains to be seen how U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration will respond in that case.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson, Mo., the situation has been far more combustible from the get-go. An unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, was shot and killed Saturday by a police officer after what police described as a “physical confrontation” involving the officer, Mr. Brown and another person on Saturday.

The St. Louis County Police reported that the officer, who has not been named, was pushed back inside his squad car and at least one shot was then fired from inside the car. Mr. Brown was struck “more than just a couple” of times and died.

Almost immediately, enraged members of the community erupted into violence, throwing stones, vandalizing cars and then burning and looting stores as a phalanx of police officers clad in riot gear and deploying military vehicles tried to restore order. Scores of people have been arrested.

President Obama said yesterday that Americans “have been deeply disturbed” by the violence, but adding that there is “no excuse for police to use excessive force,” and that city and county officials should be “open and transparent” about the investigation into the shooting.

At the same time, Mr. Obama cautioned, “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting.”

Similarly, Mr. Sharpton said of the Ferguson incident as he met with the parents of Michael Brown, “No one has the right to take their child’s name and drag it through the mud because you’re angry,” Sharpton told a crowd in Missouri. “To become violent in Michael Brown’s name is to betray the gentle giant that he was. Don’t be so angry that you distort the image of who his mother and father told us he was.”

Americans can only hope that these commendable words from Mr. Sharpton, known for his fiery rhetoric (often at the expense of public order in the past), can quell the angry throngs outside St. Louis before anyone else is hurt.

But it’s also worth noting that the aftermath of the death of Eric Garner, though it happened under significantly different circumstances, never descended into violence, despite the loud exhortations of a few hotheads.

The protests have consisted solely of peaceful marches and rallies for justice, as the marchers see it.

That’s to the credit of Mr. Sharpton, who has certainly not ceased his condemnations of what he and others see as excessive force on the part of the police, but has confined his rhetoric to fact-based statements and calls for a thorough and unflinching investigation — and ultimately, charges against officers who subdued Mr. Garner by force.

But we maintain that a lot of the difference between these two sources of potential unrest comes from the fact that there is a more tolerant atmosphere here and a healthier dynamic between citizens and the NYPD and this city.

Both surely have their differences and they probably won’t be resolved soon.

But both tacitly recognize the fundamental truth that the occasions when things go wrong, as happened in the case of Mr. Garner, must not be allowed to explode into events that are far worse for everyone involved.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/DSsjpg

The Canandaigua Daily Messenger on NASCAR changing its rules after driver Tony Stewart hit and killed another driver during race.

Aug. 17

One week ago today, our community was waking up to the news that thousands of our neighbors and friends, enjoying an evening of dirt track racing, witnessed a horrific incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park that took the life of a promising young driver.

NASCAR star Tony Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. as Ward attempted to confront Stewart by exiting his car and walking toward Stewart’s car, still traveling at a high rate of speed, after what Ward clearly thought was an intentional hit that spun his car into the wall.

Stewart is known for showing up at dirt tracks to promote bigger NASCAR races and to mix it up with the local sprint-car drivers. Last year, at the Canandaigua track, Stewart pushed 19-year-old sprint-car driver Alysha Ruggles out of the way, causing a wreck that left Ruggles with a fractured back. Her family is now asking why Stewart wasn’t banned from racing after that incident. Ward’s family is likely asking the same question.

But NASCAR breeds the Tony Stewarts. Like other high-profile sports, it’s a business. Spectacles such as crashes and drivers mixing it up are part of the theater of the race. And when something happens, NASCAR the business gets the PR bump.

In 1979, Davey Allison and Cale Yarborough were involved in a legendary fight that Allison’s brother, Bobby, also jumped into after a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in which Yarborough blamed Allison for his losing control of his car. The bump cost Yarborough his lead and Richard Petty went on to win the race.

It was the first nationally televised NASCAR race, and that event led to a rise in the popularity of NASCAR and the sport has seemingly embraced that culture in the decades to follow. By doing so, it has gained popularity.

At what cost?

That NASCAR took a good first step on the rules around driver conduct following this incident is heartening. This past week, NASCAR announced it would institute a rule that prohibits drivers from exiting their cars under a caution flag. While smaller dirt tracks individually grapple with the rules around drivers exiting their cars under a yellow flag, NASCAR takes a step toward setting an example for the tracks that are home to the less-experienced local drivers who clearly are at risk when they mix it up with the pros, if the Ward fatality and Ruggles’ severe injury are any indication.

Rural communities have a long tradition of motorsports mania. The raucous, sometimes rowdy need for speed is a part of the country culture. Weekends at the Glen are a tradition, and Saturday nights at Canandaigua Motorsports Park are the stuff of local legends. It’s a community, and it is a vital part of who many young rural racers are. It holds some positive benefits for many young people.

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Online:

http://goo.gl/brlHxj

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