Happily, the estimated $36,000 cost state officials told a reporter it would cost to retrieve certain e-mails sent to or from Kurt Adams when he was chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission turns out to have been a gross overstatement. It also wouldn’t take as long as a year to get those e-mails, reporter Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting learned last week.
Rather, the cost was $160, which chagrined current PUC chairman Jack Cashman waived, and it took just a couple of days. What changed? First, the Portland Phoenix revealed that the primary way state officials’ e-mails are stored for archival, historical, or disaster-recovery purposes is in a cumbersome tape-backup system, from which retrieval could take as much as a year of a state employee’s time (see "Maine’s Broken E-mail System," by Jeff Inglis, August 27).
But then, as a result of questions from the Phoenix and other media outlets, workers at the state Office of Information Technology “re-looked at the steps we took on the original request” from Schalit — and in the process remembered that state workers are asked to archive their own e-mail periodically onto networked file servers. Those who do, as Adams did, leave copies of their messages in an easily searchable format, so long as techies remember to look.
In their “re-look,” OIT staff discovered that in fact the e-mails were indeed on the archive server, according to a September 8 letter from state chief information officer Greg McNeal to Cashman at the PUC. McNeal called the failure to remember to look in April, when Schalit’s request first arrived, “a critical error” on the part of his staff. That failure led to the determination that meeting Schalit’s request would mean slogging through the costly, labor-intensive tape-backup process.
On September 9, a day after hearing from McNeal, Cashman wrote Schalit, apologizing for the mix-up, enclosing McNeal’s letter explaining what had happened, saying that the e-mail retrieval took 16 hours, which could be billed at $10 per hour under state law, and adding that Cashman was waiving that $160 charge because of what he called “the history of this issue.”
Schalit says she is going through the e-mails now and plans to report on her findings in the coming weeks. Even though this story has a happy ending — the public interest served by gracious if tardy action — the problem of timely retrieval of e-mails that aren't properly archived by state staffers, or are no longer stored anywhere except on tape, remains, in Maine and throughout the nation.