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Orange County officials are putting the brakes on plans to destroy public meeting records after just two years, and instead are now looking at creating a policy to preserve the records digitally in response to questions from Voice of OC.

The news agency had questioned officials about why they would make a written policy to destroy these documents but not to preserve them digitally.

Robin Stieler, who oversees the meeting records as the county’s clerk of the board, says officials are canceling the proposed destruction policy, which had appeared again on next week’s Board of Supervisors’ agenda.

“We’re going to be deleting the item,” Stieler told Voice of OC this week.

County attorneys decided there’s no need for a written policy to destroy the meeting records after two or three years because such authority already exists under state law and other county policies, she added.

Now, officials are discussing a potential written policy to preserve these records digitally – something that was not being considered until Voice of OC started asking questions about it last month.

“We’re going to evaluate the potential benefit of preserving the records” through a written policy, including any budget requests that are needed for it, Stieler said. There’s no timeline yet for when such a policy would come to supervisors for approval.

“We definitely want to preserve them,” she said of the records.

Asked if any meeting records will be destroyed before there’s a preservation policy, Stieler said no.

“Absolutely not, nothing’s going to be destroyed,” she said.

The proposed destruction policy, originally up for approval last week, called for destroying a host of public meeting records two years after the meetings take place. The records slated for destruction included agendas, and audio recordings, and the official minutes of what happened.

It would have applied to the public meeting records of a range of key county panels 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.

It also would have allowed destruction of video and audio of Board of Supervisors hearings after three years.

In response to inquiries last month from Voice of OC, two supervisors said they want to see the records archived before the paper versions are destroyed.

“I do not support the destruction of records but I do support the digitization of hard-copy records,” Supervisor Don Wagner told Voice of OC.

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

Katrina Foley, the newest county supervisor, told Voice of OC she supports archiving the records and would 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 said.

“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].”

The staff report for the original destruction policy cited no financial savings from getting rid of the public records, though officials wrote it would “free up valuable space and resources.”

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 City 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.

While it may technically be legal for the county to destroy some 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 recently told Voice of OC.

“Agencies ought to default to transparency wherever possible.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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