[EDITORIAL] Independent Investigation Needed

EDITORIALWhen the Ledger first learned boxes of public records marked for destruction were discoverd accidentally at Piper Technical Center near City Hall, we reviewed the city’s policy of records retention and destruction on its website and discovered, while murky, it did say public records could only be destroyed with the approval of the Los Angeles City Attorney and the full City Council. It never occured to us those rules, according to city officials, are not for elected city councilmembers or the Mayor.

Los Angeles City Clerk Holly Wolcott seems to not have a handle on Los Angeles city and California State law regarding records retention and destruction. When the issue first came to light in late January, she said the city’s policy will probably change now.

But the city already has a policy regarding this issue and so does California. It’s not clear how long city officials have been remiss in following its own and state law. Wolcott has been around City Hall for a long time, including in the City Clerk’s office, but she has only been the head of the department since 2013. Attempts to reach former city clerks have so far been unsuccessful.

We also reported last year a lax attitude coming from Wolcott and other City Clerk officials about a lack of oversight of Los Angeles’s Business Improvement Districts (BID), of which the City Clerk’s office oversees, and which takes in about $30 million in taxes from Los Angeles business owners. When the Ledger indicated concern last year to Wolcott and her staff over numerous examples of possible election fraud by the Los Feliz BID, the Ledger was told: “The Los Feliz BID can run its election any way it wants.” I guess that means poorly and potentially fradulently.

It’s a relatively small issue, but this is now twice the Ledger has reported that the Los Angeles City Clerk’s office seems to not have a solid grasp on what it oversees.

But allowing the destruction of public records is much more egregious. We understand that the issue extends much further than LaBonge and much further than pieces of paper. The city’s policy regarding computers and hard drives of elected officials and their staffs also indicates they are wiped clean unless there is a court order imposed on the city not to.

We will continue our own investigation and reporting on these issues. In the meantime, the most appropriate course of action is for Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer to call for an independent investigation in the matter.

A good place to start for such an investigation would be to check in on a motion from last May introduced in a city council committee by Councilmember Bob Blumendield and seconded by Paul Koretz asking the City Clerk to reevaluate the city’s records destruction process for cost efficiencies and to report back to the council within 30 days. It’s not clear if this ever occured. It’s also not clear why this request just nine months ago wouldn’t trigger the City Clerk’s office to refresh itself of its own policy and make sure it was in compliance legally.

Every major city in California has, and is following, strict protocol on this. San Diego City Clerk officials, for instance, meet with and train all newly elected officials and their staffs on records retention and destruction laws within months of their taking office.

So, what’s wrong with Los Angeles? Why have other city governments had this policy nailed for decades, like it was Gov 101, and the nation’s second largest city seems to have missed the memo? Is Los Angeles just inept or has the city willfully ignored laws?

The Los Angeles Times published a solid editorial today summarizing the issue, but the editorial board did not go far enough. A full independent investigation is needed to restore the public’s trust, not only on the LaBonge issue, but the city’s wholesale practice of violating its own munipal code and state law. Additionally, Wolcott should either be fired or resign immediately.

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