Christine W. Ward is the New York State archivist.

 

Theodore Roosevelt is one of New York's most cherished political figures. The former Oyster Bay resident left behind countless documents that enable us to see - and perhaps understand - the actions of a governor with clear presidential aspirations. His records show an evolution of leadership that is as relevant today as it was at the turn of the 20th century.

Those essential records are housed not in the New York State Archives, however, but at Harvard University.

Governors' records can range from routine correspondence to minutes of high-level cabinet discussions to notes that document policy development and decision-making. They can become blueprints for successive administrations. Without access to the record of the past, future administrations can't benefit from what went before and are likely to waste time and resources replicating earlier efforts.

A bill to ensure the preservation of the records of New York's governors will soon be sent to the current governor for his signature. This bill would make certain that the records of New York's governors are transferred to the New York State Archives at the end of each administration.

Since its opening in 1978, the State Archives has amassed more than 200 million records documenting New York State's Colonial and state history from 1630 till now. But the records of only a few of our governors are among those collections.

Despite the good intentions of its creators, New York's archives and records law, which is comprehensive with respect to the records of state agencies, the legislature and the judiciary, is limited in its ability to safeguard the records of governors, lieutenant governors and executive chamber staff. New York is one of the few states in the country that has no effective statutory oversight of its own executives' records. These important resources are, rather, governed by an archaic section of the Executive Law, dating from 1858, that effectively yields to the governor complete control over their final disposition. The actual ownership of the records isn't specified.

 

Over time, this has led to a situation in which each governor has determined the fate of the official records that document the policies, programs and actions of his administration. Many gubernatorial records have left the custody of state government: Some have been deposited in private institutions where they aren't under public control and may not be easily accessible; some have become personal possessions of the governor and eventually of his heirs; and some have been destroyed, lost to history forever.

Since the State Archives didn't exist before the 1970s, earlier governors had to send their records elsewhere for preservation. And some have found their way back. Documents from the governorship of Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, were initially deposited in FDR's presidential library in Hyde Park, part of the National Archives Presidential Library system. Luckily for the state, the archivist of the United States recognized the wisdom of keeping the state's executive records whole, and transferred them to the state's archives in the early 1980s.

But the records of Herbert Lehman, which undoubtedly shed light on the transition of power from Roosevelt to Lehman during the trying times of the Great Depression, are located at Columbia University. Like Lehman, Thomas Dewey also directed his records to a private repository, the University of Rochester.

Averell Harriman's records went to Syracuse University, where they were stored for more than 40 years before being given by the university to the State Archives several years ago. The State Archives are also home to the records of Alfred E. Smith, Hugh Carey and many of Mario Cuomo's documents.

 

Unfortunately, the records of the Pataki administration were not transferred to the State Archives when the governor left office. While we have some materials from his press office, we are left with a relatively small documentary legacy for an administration that, over 12 years in office, made significant inroads in environmental policy and public safety and brought the state into the digital age. We are hopeful, however, that these important records are safe, intact and will be preserved and eventually accessible to researchers. The Archives remains available to help with this effort.

The state needs a statutory requirement to ensure the preservation, from this point on, of these valuable records - whether in paper or electronic form. As it stands now, New Yorkers must rely on each incumbent's altruism and willingness to place the public's interest over their own personal or political concerns.

New York is often in the forefront of public debate on issues and policies that have national ramifications, and the records of our government - including its governors - reflect the state's preeminent position in the national arena and New York's contributions to the broader dialogue.

The records of the governor document official transactions and decisions and, after the close of an administration, become an indispensable source of information about public policy and initiatives as well as key documentation of that administration's legacy. These are, indeed, public records, and they're a critically important asset of the state.

Gov. David A. Paterson has an opportunity to ensure that the citizens of our state will have a permanent and comprehensive record of the actions of our current and future governors. The bill goes a long way to buttress transparency and accountability in state government - and it represents a strong confirmation of Paterson's commitment to open government. It's time to stop sanctioning the ongoing dispossession of this important segment of New York's history.