City Policy May Change Per LaBonge Document Issue
LOS ANGELES–The Los Angeles City Clerk confirmed today elected city councilmembers and the mayor are not subject to city policies and procedures regarding the destruction of public records and documents.
Known as “retention schedules,” these are rules and guidelines city departments must adhere to regarding how long public records are kept and then a process of how they can be destroyed, including approval by the Los Angeles City Council.
According to City Clerk Holly Wolcott, the city will now reexamine how public documents of elected officials are destroyed due to media and public scrutiny over how termed out City Councilmember Tom LaBonge disposed of documents from his council office in the months and weeks prior to his final day in office.
“The issue has never come up before,” Wolcott said, who has served as City Clerk since 2004 and previously from 1987 through 1990. “There is no protocol for the destruction of documents for elected officials.”
According to Wolcott, she is currently reviewing other cities’ policies regarding the destruction of documents. Based on her findings, she said, Los Angeles would probably follow suit.
“We will have to do the same,” she said, “now that the issue has been raised. We are happy to comply.”
The issue came to light after city records revealed a staffer in LaBonge’s office ordered 113 boxes of records from the council office be sent to an off site city facility for destruction. Additionally, according to the city’s records management officer, LaBonge personally dropped off some boxes of records himself to the Piper Technical Center, where city archives are stored and sent for disposal, from January until June 30th last year.
In total, 35 boxes of documents were recovered last July accidentally by a deputy attorney with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office who had been seeking documents related to LaBonge’s district. The boxes have been at the City Attorney’s office since their discovery and are currently in the process of being returned to LaBonge’s successor, Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu.
The cities of Sacramento and Santa Barbara both require all city officials, including those elected to office, to adhere to guidelines for the destruction of public documents, including a process which the disposal of public records must be approved by those city’s respective city councils.
Santa Barbara has policies that speak directly to the retention of files from transitioning council members, which may be of interest to Ryu, who authored a motion in December that the city create protocol for the sharing of documents between outgoing and incoming councilmembers. It has long been reported, that when Ryu took office July 1st, LaBonge had left nary a paperclip behind.
For the city of Santa Barbara, a councilmember’s files, including correspondence, reports and “information on topics and issues of interest,” to the city must be retained for five years after the expiration of the councilmember’s term. Only then can such documents be destroyed. The same holds true in Santa Barbara for mayoral transitions, but instead those documents must be retained for 10 years after a mayor’s term ends. Again, only at that time can such documents be destroyed.
Responses from the cities of San Diego, San Francisco and New York were not received on deadline.
The question has arisen, what exactly is a public record?
In the case of LaBonge, according to Pasadena-based attorney Michael Overing, who specializes in 1st Amendment issues and teaches media law at USC, “a public record is just about anything that deals with [city] council business.”
According to the California Public Records Act, which became state law in 1968, public records includes “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”
“That is incredibly broad,” said attorney Robert Silverstein, “but it reflects the legitimate intent that the public must have access to public government documents. There’s a very simple reason for that. . . .the government should be accountable for its actions . . . and the people must have access to checks against secrecy and [abuse of] power.”