Introduction: About the Papers
The Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd Papers comprise 328 cubic feet of former Mayor Corning's official correspondence. The papers (housed at the Hall of Records, but under the legal ownership of the Mayor's Office of the City of Albany) date from 1942 to 1983, with the bulk of the collection dating from the 1970s. Mayor Corning personally weeded and disposed of many of the files from the 1940s through the 1960s.
Distribution and Relocation
While extensive, this collection does not by any means contain all of Erastus Corning's papers. Upon his death, his family claimed forty cubic feet of "personal papers" stored at City Hall and donated them to the Albany Institute of History and Art. The papers donated include files relating to politics, personal matters, the South Mall (Empire State Plaza), and local elections. The Institute also holds the papers of Corning's father Edwin and his great-grandfather Erastus.
The remaining 328 cubic feet of records were sent to the Albany County Hall of Records, the joint records repository for both the City and County. Unlike the papers held by the Institute, the release of these records for public inspection became the cause of subsequent controversy and part of a precedent-setting court case testing the limits of New York State's Freedom of Information Law ("FOIL").
The Corning Papers - an estimated 900,000 documents weighing five tons - were collected from City Hall filing cabinets, boxed and shipped to the Hall of Records on March 23, 1984, where they were planned to be catalogued and prepared for researchers.
Months later, Mayor Thomas Whalen granted a reporter from the now defunct Knickerbocker News permission to examine some of the original files. Shortly after, the newspaper ran a story based on the records that was embarrassing to both City and State officials. Whalen quickly removed the papers from public inspection until all of them could "be reviewed." City Corporate Counsel Vincent McArdle defended this position arguing that people corresponding with Mayor Corning did "not anticipate [their correspondence would] end up in the newspaper. The employee, the person spoken about should be able to have that expectation that [the information] wouldn't come into the public domain."
Robert Arnold, then director of city records and Executive Director of the Hall of Records concurred, requesting in a memo to Whalen that access to the records be "tightly restricted."
This new policy angered journalists who feared when the papers were re-released they would be "thoroughly sanitized." Their fears proved justified when the papers were released again and some folders were found empty. In explaining the empty folders, the City, through McArdle, argued that under FOIL they had the right to keep certain documents from public view including those relating to Corning's role as Albany County Democratic Chairman. Corning's dual role as Mayor and Chairman was a cause of confusion. Since his role as Chairman was not an official government position, the City argued any document created by Corning in his role as Chairman was a "private paper." However, Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government disagreed with the City's interpretation, stating that FOIL "pertains to records in possession of an agency," meaning since the Mayor's Office is a government agency, all records there should be made available to the public.
The Lawsuit and its Outcome
Capital Newspapers (publishers of the Albany Times-Union and the Knickerbocker News) moved to resolve the issue by filing a lawsuit against the City citing FOIL. Capital Newspapers' attorney, Peter Danzinger, cited Freeman's argument stating, "Mayor Corning as a public figure waived any claim of unwarranted invasion of personal privacy by preparing, copying, and storing the records at Albany City Hall at public expense."
The case was heard by State Supreme Court Justice Lawrence E. Kahn who ruled that:
The petition for a judgment pursuant to Article 78 of CPLR shall be granted to the extent that respondent (the City) shall provide petitioner (Capital Newspapers) with access for inspection to all records of Erastus Corning 2nd received or maintained by him during his tenure as mayor of the city of Albany, for the period Jan. 1, 1980, through June 1, 1983 which are known as the Corning Papers.
The Judge further decided that any documents that the City claimed were exempt from disclosure should be provided to him for his review. Eventually, all of the Corning Papers were reviewed by the Corporate Counsel's office and released piecemeal between 1986 and 1988. Certain papers which the City believed should be kept from public view were submitted to Judge Kahn, and seven boxes were ruled to be restricted and not for public inspection. The Mayor's office has authorized all except these seven boxes to be available for public use at the Hall of Records Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM - 4:30 PM.
Mayor Corning's papers provide a fascinating insight into the activities and interests of the man who served over forty years as Mayor of Albany. These documents are part of the rich heritage of Albany's past, and the Albany County Hall of Records is proud to make this heritage available to the public.