The 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.