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Press Conference

Remarks By Mike Wallace at a City Hall Press Conference
Regarding Former Mayor Giuliani's Papers,
Held February 6,2002

The removal of former Mayor Giuliani's official papers from city custody -- appropriately referred to by the New York Times as a "hijacking" -- is indefensible. Mr. Giuliani claims the transfer of over 2000 boxes of official mayoral papers to "the Fortress," a high security storage facility in Queens, is justified because there, under the control of his employees, they will be catalogued more quickly, and more professionally, than can be done by the Municipal Archives, and also be made available to the public more expeditiously. Speed, professionalism, and access are the goals, the former mayor claims, nothing more.

This is preposterous on the face of it.

Take access. If, as is customary, the papers were housed in the Municipal Archives across the street, they would be available -- this very day -- to scholars, journalists, and ordinary citizens. Even before they'd been fully cataloged, the Archives would be able to hunt up requested boxes, as much of the material gets roughly organized as it is being put in storage. Fill out a simple form, and the documents are yours to see.

Try doing that today at the Fortress! Under the contract Giuliani arranged with his own appointed Commissioner in the waning days of his Administration -- imagine how much choice the gentleman had in that decision -- you or I would have to bring a Freedom of Information Act suit to get access. It could be many months, even years, before that situation changes.

Take professionalism. The Giuliani people -- inveterate privateers -- began with the assumption that the Municipal Archives was not up to the job. To prove it, they then hired a private archivist who promptly asserted the public facilities were below par -- a judgement remarkably congruent with the private company's interest in landing a million dollar-plus contract. Since then Saul Cohen, President of Giuliani's new center, has been routinely -- and incorrectly -- bad-mouthing the Municipal Archives in the media.

Mr. Cohen's assertion that the city doesn't have a storage facility "that meets archival standards" is simply false. There is ample space in the Archives itself, which is completely climate-controlled. As to the expertise of the city's archivists, I will let my associates assembled here today attest to the high esteem in which they are held by professionals in New York and across the country.

As to speed. Yes, the Municipal Archives is strapped for in-house personnel. In no small part this is thanks to Giuliani. It ill behooves the man who neglected a public agency to complain of the consequences. And it's worth noting that Rudy's hero, Fiorello LaGuardia, not only placed his mayoral papers in the custody of the Municipal Reference Library, but, in 1939, began pushing for the creation of a separate Municipal Archives, and even got the city to buy a magnificent twelve-story building in which to house them.

Though more niggardly approaches have prevailed under Giuliani, in truth the Archives has routinely transcended its budgetary limitations by obtaining outside grants. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York State Archives Program gave major funding to the Archives to process the papers of Robert Moses. Archivists were also hired to catalog and microfilm the papers of the Common Council, and for other projects that have gained the Archives its sterling reputation.

If Giuliani's concerns were speed, access, and professionalism, therefore, he could simply have arranged to give the Archives a grant with which to hire temporary staff archivists to do the work.

It is his failure to take this option that has unfortunately raised in many minds the possibility that what Giuliani really seeks is control. The archivist he hired had been well respected -- before she cast aspersions on her rival -- but the fact remains that she is a Giuliani employee and is working on her boss's papers. Sorry to say, in the age of Enron and Anderson, that's simply not an appropriate way to proceed. In theory, as Cohen notes, the city retains oversight authority. In reality, the Archives do not have someone who can schlep out to Queens every day to stand guard over the process. And why on earth should the city be asked to do so when they can undertake the work on their own premises?

The arrogance implicit in Rudy's simply walking off with the papers has been underscored by Mr. Cohen's subsequent comments defending the act. Critics "have a narrow view of who [Giuliani] is," Cohen told the Daily News. "He is beyond a New York City mayor -- he is of national interest." Well perhaps, but when he generated the documents in question, he was a mere 24/7 city employee -- just like Fiorello LaGuardia, another figure of "national interest." Nor is our confidence in the new Center's open handedness strengthened by Mr. Cohen's published remark that if his unilateralism "leaves people unhappy, - - - 'em." (I admit I've been puzzling ever since as to what a three letter Nixonian expletive deleted might be.)

Not only have all mayoral papers since LaGuardia been turned over the Archives, but the City Charter requires that this be done, one reason for suspecting that the arrangement might well yet be declared illegal. The only occasion on which mayoral documents left the premises came when another city institution -- the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives -- obtained private funding to help process Mayor Koch's papers. The Archives kept custody of the papers and doled out a few boxes at a time to LaGuardia for cataloging, after first having noted their contents. When work was satisfactorily completed on one batch, they were returned to the Archives, and another batch went out. At no time were the papers under control of Koch employees.

A particularly troublesome aspect of the original contract -- from which Giuliani has now happily but insufficiently backed away -- is that it gives the former mayor the right to initially determine what he considers to be "private" items, which presumably become candidates for being locked away or shredded. But under existing legal and professional standards, there are virtually no records generated by a mayor to which the public is not entitled to have access.

Mr. Cohen says former Mayor Koch declared some mayoral papers private, and then reserved access to them. It's not true. He set aside papers created before and after his administration, something he has a perfect right to do. More to the point, Koch had no say or control whatsoever in the classification of his administration's papers. And the fact remains that despite Giuliani's new willingness to give up his "right" to set aside whatever documents he wishes to keep secret, he still insists that the entire body of documents remain under his de facto control.

I do not intend to cast aspersions on Giuliani's probity -- though he was notorious when in power for his penchant for secrecy and for emitting only information that reflected well on him -- but personal probity is not what's at issue here. This is a city of laws, not individuals. We must not be put in the position of being asked to trust any private individual with custody of the public's records. They are the raw material of our collective history.

That is one reason that over one thousand people have signed an electronic petition posted by the Gotham Center for New York City History (www. gothamcenter.org) urging "the immediate return of all public documents to public custody." The list includes well known individuals, but more important, it's been signed by hundreds and hundreds of scholars, archivists, journalists, teachers, librarians, and people from publishing, government, law, and banking, and just plain concerned citizens. Individuals from local universities -- CUNY, NYU, Columbia, Cooper Union, Rutgers, Pace, New School, Barnard, Pratt, Polytech -- are particularly prominent, but they are joined by others from Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Berkeley, Princeton, Stanford, Brown, and scores of academic institutions from virtually every state in the Union, and from overseas as well.

I'm astonished and delighted at this outpouring of concern, and only regret that this whole imbroglio has wasted so many people's time. Mayor Bloomberg has far more pressing civic problems to attend to. He should not be placed in the position of having to repeal yet another of Giuliani's midnight hour initiatives. The former mayor should do the right thing: return the papers immediately, arrange private funding for the Archives, and then, if he wishes, make copies for his Center so it can provide a second avenue of public access, even put them up on the internet. Then, scholars, archivists, and citizens alike will praise his openness and hail his generosity.

 

For more information, contact:
Dr. Suzanne Wasserman, Associate Director of the Gotham Center.
gotham@.gc.cuny.edu. or 212.817.8460.
And consult the web site at www.gothamcenter.org.

Campaign to Keep Former Mayor Giuliani's Papers public

Action Update!
Click here for the latest.

For more information contact the Gotham Center at gotham@gc.cuny.edu
Add your Name to the Petition | Press Conference, Feb. 6, 2002 | Protest Letters | News Articles | Testimony at the Feb. 20, 2002 City Council Hearing |
Defending the archives contract: Saul Cohen, President, Rudy Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs