Thursday, April 5, 2012
Like successful Facebooking, public record-keeping takes a savvy balance between sharing what’s relevant and too much information.
“That’s a very fine line,” Monterey County Assistant County Counsel Les Girard says. “A lot of public entities are trying to move toward less and less paper.”
It’s a question most people can relate to in the scramble before Tax Day. The Internal Revenue Service advises taxpayers to keep their records for at least three years, but overstuffed filing cabinets can make it hard to find what’s important.
The city of Pacific Grove is hoping a new records-retention policy will help it find that sweet spot. Unanimously approved by the City Council last October, the policy sets a schedule for when records can be destroyed.
“The city in the past was not necessarily the best record-keeper,” P.G. City Manager Tom Frutchey says. “There was no system.”
The policy aims to centralize files, digitize key documents, upgrade long-term storage and increase public access through the city website. It also involves shredding documents deemed unimportant. City ordinances, for example, are to be kept forever; but meeting minutes are seen as irrelevant after a few years.
“If you could not destroy a record, all we’d end up with is warehouses with lots and lots of stuff,” P.G. attorney Dave Laredo says. “It’s good practice to keep records current. The last thing we want to do is buy more file cabinets.”
Other local agencies are grappling with similar issues. Each county department may have its own record-retention policy, Girard says; if not, it needs special Board of Supervisors permission to destroy records more than two years old. Such requests are fairly common, including one from the Parks Department on March 13.
Marina Coast Water District, posturing for a potential lawsuit, recently advised the county to keep records related to the scuttled Regional Desalination Project. “If you get that notice and you destroy something, you could be accused of destroying evidence,” Girard says.
Last fall, in preparation for a lawsuit over Salinas River runoff, Monterey Coastkeeper had 12,000 hard-copy pages of Monterey County Water Resources Agency documents transformed into a searchable electronic format. MCWRA later offered to go halvesies on Coastkeeper’s copy service bill – paying $1,200 for handier access to its own files.
Girard says the county is generally shifting toward less paper and better public access, but the software and licensing fees needed to search electronic documents are expensive. “We may have things electronically, but not everything is searchable,” he says. “There’s a huge cost factor involved.”
The Fort Ord Reuse Authority, meanwhile, is facing a legal effort by Keep Fort Ord Wild to unearth details about $82 million in munitions-cleanup spending. FORA officials have said they didn’t keep the invoices because contractors handled the work.
Terry Francke, general counsel for open-government nonprofit Californians Aware, says the state sets different record-keeping standards for different kinds of public agencies. Cities have to keep all records for at least two years, he says, but special districts can shred whatever’s not on a permanent retention list.
“There’s no enforcement agency that plays a role here,” he says. “Enforcement would come in a taxpayers’ suit.”