Thursday, May 27, 2010 | For more than 40 years, California has had a public records law that enables its citizens to simply walk into a government office and ask to look at public documents such as contracts, correspondence between a city and its suppliers, or other standard documents.
But what happens if a member of the public asks the Anaheim city clerk’s office to see a record?
“We’ll allow them to view the records, if we are able to locate them,” City Clerk Linda Andal said.
Locating them seems to be the problem.
This week, Voice of OC asked the clerk’s office for the standard conflict-of-interest forms that City Council members file each year. These are the forms that show what investments and other holdings elected officials have that may come in conflict with their official duties.
The documents are so ordinary that California’s 1974 Political Reform Act specifically requires them to be “open for inspection and reproduction” during regular business hours.
Many city offices keep them in a folder near the front desk in the clerk’s office so they’re readily available. In Anaheim, it took 25 minutes and three staffers to track them down, in the “vault.”
Another recent request by Voice of OC just to find out if, in the past five years, Anaheim has had a contract with a specific company, couldn’t be answered during working hours at all. A partial answer came instead in the mail about a week later.
Part of the problem, Anaheim officials say, is that the city is transferring many of its paper records to a computer program. It’s been doing this for about eight years, and a number of basic records, like City Council agendas, minutes and city ordinances are posted on the Anaheim website.
Cities around the state and in Orange County are doing similar work. But others say they are not having the same issues as Anaheim.
A Fullerton official, for example, says her city is poised to take digital access to another level by the end of the year.
“The whole idea is to be open and to try to serve the public,” Fullerton City Clerk Beverley White said. “We just try to put everything out there.”
And White doesn’t mean just minutes, agendas and the backup documents that go with them. She is preparing to post all current city contracts to the city website as well.
“My goal is (to post the contracts) by the end of the year, maybe sooner,” White said. “We’re trying to scan just about anything that comes into our office.”
She’ll also post the City Council conflict-of-interest forms on the website, she said.
And White is doing all this without worrying about getting official approval from her City Council or anywhere else.
“Almost everything we have here in the office is a public document,” she said.
Meanwhile, Anaheim officials are “exploring the idea” of posting contracts on the city’s website, but no decision has been made, Andal said.
This is not good enough, said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware and Voice of OC ‘s open government consultant.
“Nowadays,” he said, “there’s not much excuse for having human beings trotting around for long periods getting records that are easily accessed online.”
There appear to be two reasons for delays in Anaheim. One is it seems city officials have set the system up poorly. The second and more important reason is the city’s view of public records.
From the way staff members described their records system, it doesn’t appear to be set up in a way that easily lets staff know what is on the computer, what is on paper and where the paper files are located.
Anaheim uses the computer software Laserfiche, as do many cities, including Fullerton and Westminster, which are both smaller than Anaheim. But neither reported the delays in locating information that Anaheim has appeared to experience.
White said it’s important to be very careful how records are entered in the first place. The software manufacturer advised Fullerton to have someone type in file information and then have a second person check to make sure everything is spelled correctly.
In addition, she said, the software itself can check for similar spellings and words within the text that help identify it.
Then there is Anaheim’s overall approach to public records.
Members of the public should be able to walk in and look at records that are in the clerk’s office, either on computer or on paper in file folders. In the case of old records stored off-site it is reasonable to expect a day or so turnaround time, or the requester may have to go to another office.
If someone wants city staff to make copies, or, if records can’t easily be found, the city has a maximum of 10 days to meet the request. For exceptionally large or difficult requests, they can ask for an extension of the time limit.
All of this is a basic requirement of California law that has been in place since 1968.
“There is no provision in the California Public Records Act authorizing a public agency routinely to tell requesters to ‘come back in 10 days,’ or words to that effect,” Francke has said.
But Anaheim appears to discourage walk-ins. And City Attorney Cristina Talley didn’t respond to a request to discuss the way the city enforces the public records law.
Instead, the city provides an online form for residents to file a written request and a notice that says the city has 10 days to determine if the records exist.
What the form doesn’t say is that making an determination in Anaheim these days seems far from a sure thing.