Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Saranac Lake E-mail Policy Limits Government Transparency

Clyde RabideauThe day after the Saranac Lake Village Board voted to approve a crucial zoning change for a proposed 90-room luxury hotel on Lake Flower, I filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for all correspondence between Mayor Clyde Rabideau and Chris LaBarge, the developer behind the project. I wanted to know more about the decision-making process that led to the mayor’s enthusiastic support of the hotel as well as any correspondence that might be of interest to the public. (The approval of the Planned Unit Development District or PUDD brings the project one step closer to reality, but it still awaits reviews by the village Planning Board and Adirondack Park Agency.)

The mayor provided me with all of the emails he had on file, which amounted to 11 pages of correspondence dating back to July 2013. They show a relatively friendly relationship between Rabideau and LaBarge.

In one email from August 2013, the mayor sent LaBarge a photo of a French Mansard roof. “I know you already knew what I meant by a French Mansard roof,” the Mayor wrote, “but I was in Quebec City last week and couldn’t resist taking this pic for you.” In another email, he sent the developer a picture of two-story windows at his brother’s house. In a more recent one, LaBarge wrote to Rabideau, “We will miss you at the Guv’s outing,” referring to the Lake Placid Winter Challenge attended by Andrew Cuomo in March.

The only bit of news was LaBarge’s request for a meeting with the mayor on July 12, 2013, to “review what we are planning.” Two weeks later the mayor appeared with LaBarge at a press conference to announce the proposed development. “We’re going to work with this developer,” Rabideau said. “This is a huge investment. We haven’t seen an investment of this magnitude in Saranac Lake in generations.” (According to Rabideau there are no notes, minutes, or memos from the July 12 meeting).

Chris LaBarge did not respond to requests for comment.

The 11 pages of emails weren’t terribly surprising, but they did reveal something else: Mayor Rabideau, who was elected in 2010, uses his personal email account to conduct official business. The mayor does have an official email address, but anything sent to it is automatically forwarded to his Hotmail account, the same address that appears on his general contracting website. In addition his emails are signed not as Mayor of Saranac Lake, as one might expect, but with his construction company’s name, Rabideau Corp. His email signature also includes the company’s address and website. At the very bottom of the signature, after his business information, he includes a link to his mayoral Facebook page.

According to Saranac Lake village clerk Kareen Tyler the mayor doesn’t have an office in town and was not given a computer by the village. She added that the village does not archive his emails. “If he chooses to delete them, he deletes them,” she says.

Given that the Adirondack Park is made up of small towns and villages where most people are on a first-name basis, I thought perhaps this is just the way things are done. In interviews with mayors or clerks in all 10 Adirondack villages, however, I learned that Saranac Lake is the exception, not the rule. In only two other villages do mayors regularly use their personal email addresses for village affairs: Northville, which doesn’t even have a website, and Tupper Lake, which is in the process of establishing village email accounts. Mayors of Corinth, Lake George, Lake Placid, Port Henry, Mayfield, Dannemora, and Speculator do not use their personal email addresses for government functions.

Brian Towers, president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and the Town of Wells supervisor, says local officials should use an official email address when conducting government business. He points out that paper records from his office clearly indicate that they are from the town of Wells. “It really shouldn’t be any different with email,” he says.

The issue of government officials using personal email accounts has received a great deal of scrutiny in recent months after it was revealed that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, used her own personal address rather than one issued by the State Department. It may seem like something that has little relevance in small towns and rural areas like the Adirondacks, yet that is not the case. In fact, it’s an issue that has been raised at the local level for years because local officials often work part time or from home.

“The truth is this issue came up much earlier with respect to local government officials,” says Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government. As early as 2006, Freeman issued an advisory opinion on the subject of whether emails from a town councilman’s private email address constitute a public record subject to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. “Email kept, transmitted or received by a town official in relation to the performance of his or her duties is subject to the Freedom of Information Law, even if the official ‘uses his private email address’ and his own computer,” Freeman wrote.

In order to avoid problems that might arise from using a personal email account, the committee made several suggestions to local governments. Freeman says that all communication subject to FOIL “should be copied and sent to the records officer so that he or she can deal with the request.”

That is the practice in the village of Corinth. According to Village Clerk Nicole Colson, the mayor copies her on any business that may be subject to FOIL requests and she keeps or deletes them according to state retention schedules, which vary depending on the content. In addition all of the mayor’s correspondence goes through the main system server and is therefore backed up. “There’s no written policy, but it’s something I speak to every new mayor about,” says Colson, who has served as village clerk for 10 years.

When Jamie Ward became mayor of Mayfield four years ago the village didn’t have a website. Ward, who has an IT background and currently works for Apple, made sure there was a clear distinction between government and personal email accounts. He jokes that Mayfield now has a better email policy than the U.S. secretary of state’s office. In Mayfield village officials don’t use personal email accounts for village business and all mail is archived on Google servers.

Ward says the distinction between personal and government or village accounts is important for security and archival purposes. “From a records standpoint and archival standpoint governments make history every day and that should all be in one spot for very easy access and simplicity. It makes total sense.”

In Lake Placid, Mayor Craig Randall uses a .gov email address and “prefers that emails involving the village” be directed to that address. In an email, Mayor Randall wrote that “village officers’ data based email is backed up regularly to the network server.”

Rabideau, who served as mayor of Plattsburgh for 10 years, is not a newcomer to elected office. In addition to his long run as mayor, he served as president of the New York Conference of Mayors from 1997 to 1998. NYCOM has addressed the issue of personal versus government email accounts and regularly holds workshops on FOIL in the digital age. In addition, the New York State Archives has had an email policy publication since 2010 (Developing a Policy for Managing Email) and has held workshops on the subject for several years.

It is somewhat surprising therefore that Mayor Rabideau has continued to use his personal email address to conduct government business and that Saranac Lake has no system in place for archiving email correspondence. “To my knowledge this has never been discussed,” says Village Trustee Tom Catillaz, who served as Mayor from 1999 to 2005.

Mayor Rabideau did not respond to email requests for an interview.

To some the issue may seem trivial. What difference does it make if a mayor uses his or her personal account or official village account? All emails, whether they’re sent from a Hotmail account or .gov address, are subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

Yet one of the potential problems associated with use of private email accounts is that deleted emails might be retained only for a short period. If an elected official accidentally or deliberately deleted emails that were subject to FOIL they would in effect be unrecoverable. In addition if there’s a clear distinction between private and official email accounts it’s easier to archive correspondence and adhere to state retention requirements.

Moreover, using separate accounts ensures that there’s no blurring of the boundary between private enterprise and public service. For anyone interested in transparency and government accountability, these are issues of concern. Thus the New York State Archives, which advises state agencies and local governments on record keeping practices, “discourages the use of personal email accounts to conduct public business.” The agency’s policy manual notes that, until recently, “most organizations have failed to include email in a formal management policy or program.” But it adds: “This omission is no longer acceptable.”

The village of Saranac Lake has had a website since 2008. A clear policy on elected officials’ use of private email accounts and the village’s archiving of those records appears to be long overdue.

Photo: Clyde Rabideau in a promotional photo on his construction company’s website.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

12 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    It certainly makes sense to use a “village” email account (and better yet a village server that automatically archives the email so you cannot delete messages related to official business unless the village wants to which they can probably legally do as long as there isn’t a pending legal case). But it looks like some of these emails are not “official” at all but just between two friends? They don’t seem to have anything to do with official business?

    Best policy is to pick up the phone and forget the email.

  2. Charlie S says:

    “Mayor Rabideau, who was elected in 2010, uses his personal email account to conduct official business….In addition his emails are signed not as Mayor of Saranac Lake, as one might expect, but with his construction company’s name, Rabideau Corp.”

    Mayor Rabideau of Rabideau Construction Company. This is just a coincidence folks.I mean who is actually going to believe he ran for office to better his own interests versus trying to make his community a better place because he cares for the people who live there? Things like this just dont happen in this day and age.A coincidence I say.

  3. tim-brunswick says:

    My take on this, having been a reporter for some years at a time when Adam Federman was not yet on the planet, is Mr. Federman is trying to dig up dirt where there really isn’t any. In this day and age, it’s tough enough to get viable candidates for office when this is the kind of scrutiny the media subjects them to.

    Adam should look to the Times Union or New York Post for a position where there really is scandal/corruption to be exposed. His manipulation/presentation of the e-mails sounds more like one of the “Expose'” publications found at the checkout counter in the market.

    For crying out loud we’re talking about “Saranac Lake”….not Albany or New York City…….geeez!

  4. Bruce says:

    Speaking as a federal retiree, I can’t stress enough that conducting government business on a personal account is extremely unwise and if it is not, should be made illegal. . Each employee where I worked was given an official e-mail account which “could” be used to receive and send personal e-mail, keeping in mind that all correspondence on that account was subject to scrutiny. If the scope of an official’s job requires frequent conducting of business while on the move, give them an I-phone, I-pad, or something tied back to their government account. That way everything remains above board.

    When someone leaves, it’s real simple for an administrator to cancel their access and government accounts

  5. Dave Gibson says:

    Adam, a truly investigative, broadly relevant posting useful to all of us who live with and are affected by government of, by and for the people. Thank you.

  6. dave says:

    The size or remoteness of a government does not insulate it from bad behavior, corruption, or incompetence… and does not mean it should receive less scrutiny or be held any less accountable.

    Just look at the horror show that is being uncovered over in the town of Essex right now. It wasn’t the media who uncovered that. It was a citizen who got wind of it and pushed the authorities and then forced the media to start to take that serious, and as I understand it, they are still having a hard time getting most of the local media outlets to really investigate the problems in that town hall. Maybe if we had someone like Adam scrutinizing things over there, this would have been dealt with before it reached this point.

    So I for one am happy we have local journalists like Adam that can ask the tough questions and look into possible issues. Wish we had more.

    All of that being said, when it comes to this particular issue, while I think local government officials absolutely need to start using official town or gov email systems, the fact that a lot of them do not (my supervisor, not mentioned here, often uses a personal account too) is not – in my opinion – a product of anything other than habit, convenience, and, a lot of times, technological ignorance.

    I personally don’t think a guy like Clyde is using a Hotmail address (just upgraded from AOL?) to be shady or malicious or collude and offer quid pro quos to developers. Maybe I’m too trusting? I think, if he thought about it all, it was probably more about not wanting to have to check and keep track of two accounts and remember two logins and etc, etc. For many of us, multiple emails accounts (work/personal) is natural. Part of our every day. But that is not the case for everyone. I see it all the time when helping local businesses and residents with their technological needs.

    As Adam points out, ultimately this comes down to a matter of government transparency, and maintaining our trust in our officials. So maybe the follow up question here is… how do we encourage and help our local governments understand this issue and move over to official email systems… I suppose the question after that is, who maintains and looks after “official email systems” in small towns like ours?

  7. Charlie S says:

    tim-brunswick says: “Mr. Federman is trying to dig up dirt where there really isn’t any.”

    How do you know there’s no dirt tim? Bruce is right in what he says,that conducting government business on a personal account is extremely unwise and should be made illegal. You would think Mayor Rabideau would be smart about something like this but him being a politician (and a developer) it comes as no surprise and quite frankly it’s what we expect these days from our corporate leaders who always seem to bend towards where the money flows. If there has been no unlawful practice on his part then Mayor Rabideau has no reason to sweat.

    I was an on-air personality on public radio for many years Tim and I spent lots of time behind the scenes in the newsroom so I know how the system works and I can say from experience that there’s a ton of dirt to be dug up and not enough investigative reporters to do all the work. Also I know how much news does not get reported which brings me to the realization on how misinformed this society is. I thank Adam Federman for being out there and I hope he continues to be the agitator I suspect he is.We need more of him…especially in this day and age!

  8. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Charles, Thank you very much for your candor. You certainly do sound like a Personality and I’m not surprised that being a veteran of the radio media you support agitating.

  9. Bruce says:

    Dave says, “I suppose the question after that is, who maintains and looks after “official email systems” in small towns like ours?”

    Excellent question Dave, I though about it after I posted my other comments. It’s a tough call, especially where politically controlled small budgets are involved. These small town administrators might learn how some of the bigger city managers deal with the issue, but deal with it they must, eventually. I seriously doubt that which has come to light so far (Hilary Clinton included) is any less than the tip of a massive iceberg.

    I suppose a set of rules could be drawn up which everyone currently in, and those coming in would have to sign. Then there’s the question of oversight…who does that? As I said, it’s a tough call.

  10. Hawthorn says:

    This is no different than the way small town government has conducted business forever, it just now comes under scrutiny because of Clinton being outed. In the past and still today a lot, if not most, town business is conducted “off-the-record” one way or another. Look at New York State’s “three-men-in-room” budget process. It happens at all levels of government. No matter how much you trust your elected officials sunlight is the best way to prevent decay and rot starting in the shadows.

  11. Paul says:

    Email if done on a government server or like it was here adds quite a bit of transparency that didn’t exist in the past. You would not have had the ten pages w/o it. It is not perfect but there is much more transparency now than in the past. If you want good people to serve I say you cut them some slack. If we become a police state in all aspects of life with everything recorded and monitored nobody will want to take a public service job. I think it still alright to trust folks till they give you a real reason not to.

  12. Teresa DeSantis says:

    Adam, Hello there. If this matter is of deep concern to you, why don’t you write a
    polite letter to the Village Board about what you feel is the issue and possible remedies, and present it to the Village Clerk. You can even ask that it be put on the Agenda for the next Village Board meeting.

    When every municipality meets, there is a section on the Agenda for “Correspondence”- as in “what correspondence was received by the Board since the last meeting.” In many municipalities, letters such as these are photocopied and given to the Board in the Agenda/Meeting packet, and also often read out loud at the meeting. The Board then can decide if it wants to move forward with any concerns raised in the letter. Why don’t you give it a try and see what happens?

    Teresa The Cartographer

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