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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

City To Look into Strengthening Public Records Retention Policies

File this one under politics makes for strange bedfellows. During the course of my investigation into Davis Joint Unified and Tahir Ahad, one thing I discovered was the key public records under the California Public Records Act and Brown Act requirements can be discarded after a given period of time.

The most important of these records are the video recordings of meetings. For example, the city of Davis retains videos of meetings for three months. One can go to the library and view videos for meetings for up to two years prior. However, beyond that two year period, videos generally are hard to come by and are not systematically stored anywhere.

That means outside of the two year period one has to rely on the minutes of meetings and newspaper articles for the historical record. Minutes of meetings are not transcripts and newspaper articles by their very nature are selective. As we discovered, you never know in the future what will be important to preserve.

As such I have made it a point this year to work with all of the local jurisdictions to expand the retention of public records. Of the three, the county seems to be the most advanced in that capacity.

At the city level, I approached Rich Rifkin, who sits on the Historic Resources Management Commission and asked him if he had interest in bringing the item forward for discussion there. He brought this item up on Monday night at the joint HRMC-Council meeting. There was consensus at that time to explore the issue.

Last night at the council meeting, Lamar Heystek brought up the item as a future agenda item. He was directed by City Manager Bill Emlen to explore the issue with City Attorney Harriet Steiner and City Clerk Margaret Roberts. Councilmember Don Saylor will join in what will become a subcommittee.

The council had clear consensus that they would like to expand their retention of such records. As City Attorney Harriet Steiner pointed out, and this is my interpretation as non-lawyer as well, the Public Records Act creates a minimum standard for access and retention, but local jurisdictions are not precluded from enacting much stronger measures.

One of my strongest passions is to have as open and transparent a government as possible. Along with that is the necessity to preserve an historic record of proceedings so that we can view past discussions and if necessarily hold elective official accountable for their past actions. We cannot do that if we lose good portions of that historic record.

There is certainly an expense and a space concern. The fact that information can be digitized and stored on DVDs mitigates that concern somewhat. But that is a valid concern. The future will probably make the storage of such records more feasible.

It is refreshing to see commitment by all council members toward this issue and I expect that it will go forward in an expeditious manner in the future.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting