Mike Bloomberg likes his privacy. For ten years, the outgoing mayor of New York has refused to disclose when he visits Bermuda to golf, going so far as to hide his private jet from FAA’s public database. He threw a $160,000 hissy fit over releasing emails related to his appointment of Hearst executive Cathie Black, the failed almost-chancellor of New York City’s public schools. So it’s all the more satisfying that his administration’s records—letters, travel logs, internal memos—will soon come under the supervision of his liberal successor—and enormous Bloomberg hater—Bill de Blasio. That’s because of a law Bloomberg himself signed ten years ago.
Come December 31, the last day of Bloomberg’s reign, hundreds of thousands of records and documents collected during his tenure will be moved to the Surrogate’s Court Building, on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan, where the city’s Department of Records and Information Services will build an archive comprising records of “historical value,” which anyone can search through during business hours.
Records “appraised as historical typically include subject files, departmental correspondence, photographs, speeches, executive orders and directives,” Kenneth Cobb, the Assistant Commissioner at the Department of Records told Gawker. He added, “Appraisal of historical value of mayoral material is inclusive, usually only excluding insignificant records series such as routine office supply purchase requests.”
This includes personal correspondence too. When we asked if, say, Bloomberg's email correspondence with his daughter would be preserved and made available for public inspection, Cobb responded: “Our assumption is that the mayor would not have corresponded with family members via his nyc.gov e-mail; but if he had, those messages would potentially be open for research."
If the procedure described above sounds like something Bloomberg would try his very hardest to circumvent, that’s because his Republican predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, did exactly that, and with Bloomberg’s open approval.
Let’s go back a bit. In late 2001, a few months after 9/11 and mere weeks before he left office for good, Giuliani secretly transferred more than 2,000 boxes of records from City Hall to a private storage facility in Long Island City called The Fortress, where the records came under the control of an entity called the Rudolph W. Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs. The move followed years and years of Giuliani trying to suppress unflattering yet clearly public records, such as those documenting the NYPD security detail he ordered to follow him around when cheating on his wife with a woman named Judith Nathan.
The transfer also deliberately skirted city regulations requiring former mayors to hand over their administration’s records to the Department of Records. But a loophole gave Giuliani enough ground to sequester his records, which for several years were accessible only via Freedom of Information Law requests, which take months, sometimes years, to fulfill.
“I think that anything that makes it more difficult to get information is unfortunate,” Bloomberg told reporters in 2002. “But some of these documents are documents that the mayor has a right to have, and I am sympathetic if he would prefer that you didn’t look at them.”
Bloomberg reversed course more than a year later, in March 2003, when the city comptroller, Bill Thompson, questioned the integrity of the Giuliani records, still then under lock and key in Queens. So the new mayor and New York’s City Council passed a new law, in June 2003, explicitly forbidding future mayors from transferring mayoral records to a private company. But the legislation suffered from an apparent quid pro quo: Bloomberg refused to apply the new law retroactively to Giuliani, thereby supplying the former mayor, and then-fellow Republican, much-needed cover for his records heist.
Still, the new law ensured that whichever administration came after Bloomberg would, through the Municipal Archive, oversee a decade’s worth of his and his lieutenants’ records, including those describing their daily, sometimes hourly whereabouts. Remember when The New York Times discovered Bloomberg repeatedly faked riding the subway? Imagine what else his travel logs show.
The new law is not without some flaws. There’s some ambiguity, as reported by DNAInfo in September, about whether and for how long City Hall plans to archive certain agencies’ emails—including those generated by employees of the mayor’s office, the Fire Department, and the NYPD. (The city’s legal counsel cannot publicly discuss these plans. Given the legal turmoil surrounding stop-and-frisk, however, and it seems very unlikely the NYPD’s emails would not be preserved.)
And you’ll still have to wait a bit. Cobb, the assistant commissioner, told us that “archival records are usually not made publicly accessible until processing procedures have been completed,” including redacting confidential information.
One upside this time around, however, is that the Records Department is hoping to make electronic records more accessible. To read, say, Giuliani’s emails, you have to visit the records archive during open hours and fish for material using 80s-era microfilm rolls. No Google Search, in other words. Cobb told Gawker:
We hope to be able to provide access to electronic media in electronic format. However, the format selected will depend on funding and assistance from the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications and the new administration.
Asked whether Bloomberg intended to in any way imitate Giuliani’s legacy, spokesman Marc La Vorgna wrote back: “No.”
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