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If governments destroy paper records of their meetings after two years, should they keep a digital copy for the public?

Those are questions now facing county supervisors as they decide on an official policy allowing destruction of a host of government meeting records after two or three years.

While officials say they intend to preserve the records digitally, it’s not mentioned in the proposed destruction plan  and there is no written policy to digitally save them.

That could be about to change.

Questions this week from Voice of OC are prompting top county officials to hold off for now on approving of the destruction plan until there’s a conversation about digitally preserving the documents.

The change came in response to questions from Voice of OC to all five county supervisors and their clerk, after the news agency noticed a proposed policy change on next Tuesday’s agenda.

In an interview with Voice of OC, the official in charge of these records said she and her staff intend to digitize them, though there’s no written policy or promise to do so.

“The goal is to digitize these. And we don’t intend to destroy any records until the records are digitized,” said Robin Stieler, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors.

“It’s not clearly defined within [the proposal], and it should have been,” she said, adding she’s not aware of any written policies to digitize meeting records that would be destroyed.

Asked if there’s a plan to create a written policy to digitally preserve records, Stieler said she would start conversations with tech officials on it.

“I think that’s part of a conversation we need to have with [the IT department], for how we preserve records,” Stieler said.

“We need to make sure we preserve all of our records and digitize them and make them available,” she added. “It’s very important that we do maintain them.”

Katrina Foley, the newest county supervisor, told Voice of OC she supports archiving the records and will be asking county staff for answers on how to do so.

“To the extent possible we should always try to preserve and archive public meetings and records of public hearings,” Foley told Voice of OC.

“That’s both for purposes of going back to learn from the past, and also for our history – as well as for whatever is happening in the current day that people might want to refer to [the historical record on].”

Supervisor Don Wagner also told Voice of OC he supports digitizing the records.

“I do not support the destruction of records but I do support the digitization of hard-copy records,” Wagner said in a written response to questions.

“This is an easier, more cost-effective way to store those records, and it provides more accessibility to the public.”

The other supervisors – Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett, and Doug Chaffee – didn’t return phone messages for comment.

The upcoming destruction proposal – originally up for approval on Tuesday – wouldn’t affect the county supervisors’ main meetings, which state law requires be kept permanently.

But it would allow destruction of a host of other public meeting records, including agendas, and audio recordings, and the official minutes of what happened.

It would apply to the public meeting records of county commissions like the Commission to End Homelessness, the anti-racism Human Relations Commission, and the board committee that is redrawing boundaries that will decide which voters will be in each supervisor’s district.

All of those meeting records could be destroyed after two years under the proposed policy, which doesn’t mention whether they’d be preserved digitally.

It also would allow destruction of video and audio of Board of Supervisors hearings after three years, and would allow destruction of public records requests after two years.

The staff report proposing the changes cites no financial savings from destroying these records, though officials wrote it will “free up valuable space and resources.”

Following Voice of OC’s questions, Wagner said his understanding is the proposed destruction policy is being put on hold in order to work through questions.

Cities across Orange County also have their own records destruction policies, contained in what officials often call “records retention schedules.”

In Irvine, nearly all communication between city staff and the council is destroyed after two years, while financial records are generally kept for six years or permanently. 

The council also hangs onto meeting agendas and videos permanently, but the various committees and boards that feed into the council only hang onto that footage for five years if it’s published at all. 

Irvine’s record destruction plans are found within a policy that’s 249 pages long.

The city’s records destruction policy has created roadblocks in the public’s ability to understand decisions around the Great Park.

For example, amid destruction of meeting records that are more than five years old, no sitting city council members have been able to definitively say when or how discussions began for a proposed $250 million taxpayer-funded facility at the Great Park for USA Water Polo.

That policy of records destruction has created roadblocks in the public’s ability to understand decisions around the Great Park. No sitting city council member has been able to definitively say reporters when or how discussions for USA Water Polo’s move to the city began.

While it may technically be legal for the county to destroy meeting records after two years, First Amendment advocate David Snyder says it’s much better to maintain the records so the public can know what its government officials are up to.

“Having a record of what happens in public meetings is really crucial to understanding the reasoning behind government agency actions and to holding government agencies accountable for their decisions and the reasoning behind them,” Snyder told Voice of OC.

“Agencies ought to default to transparency wherever possible.”

Peter Eliasberg, a First Amendment attorney, noted that the work of panels like the Commission to End Homelessnss center on issues and policies that are hugely important to the public.

These boards are “doing the people’s business,” said Eliasberg, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“Homelessness is a persistent and problematic issue in Orange County. It’s generated a lot of public controversy and political controversy,” he added.

“I think there’s a real [reason] why the public – whether historians, journalists – might want to see records that are more than two years old. How this thinking has evolved; if it has, what policies were discussed to get us to this current place,” Eliasberg said.

“There ought to be transparency about what government officials are doing.”

Voice of OC reporting fellow Noah Biesiada contributed reporting to this story.

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