New City Council Document Policy the First in Decades

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Inside the city of Los Angeles’s Piper Technical Center where archives are stored. Photo: City of Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved today what appears to be the first formal policy in decades for keeping and destroying documents and records by city councilmembers.

The so-called “retention schedules” map out the length of time documents and records are to be retained in a councilmember’s office, how long the records will be archived by the city and when they can be destroyed.

The Los Angeles City Clerk initiated the action in August after it was discovered earlier this year that over 100 boxes of documents and records were ordered destroyed by outgoing councilmember Tom LaBonge in the weeks and months before he left office June 30, 2015.

“The City Council has not had a formal records retention schedule as a group that we can find for at least the last 30 years,” said Los Angeles City Clerk Holly Wolcott in an email to the Ledger Sept. 4th.

Wolcott earlier this year said records retention schedules were only relevant for city departments and officers. But according to Los Angeles Municipal Code, section 200, city councilmembers are defined as “officers” of the city. Additionally, California law makes it illegal to destroy public records less than two years old, unless doing so has been approved by the city council and the city attorney or if a document has been reproduced or is a duplicate.

The new policy was a victory for Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu, who in 2015 won LaBonge’s seat in a contentious election over LaBonge’s former Chief of Staff Carolyn Ramsay.

Late last year, it was revealed through media reports that when Ryu took office July 1, 2015, LaBonge had not left any documents behind for his successor.

“Upon entering office, my staff and I started without documentation or paperwork related to open land use cases, constituent inquires, or information on outstanding commitments of discretionary funds. Today’s vote will ensure that doesn’t happen again,” said Ryu today in a prepared statement.

As an example, today’s new policy indicates that constituent files and correspondence must be kept in a council office for two years, after which time they can be destroyed. Appointment calendars and scheduling records, however, cannot be destroyed for eight years. Such records must remain in a council office for four years, then archived for an additional four years. Files reflecting a councilperson’s views on significant policy and planning issues are to remain permanently in the city’s archives.

Archived city documents and records are kept at the C. Erwin Piper Technical Center in downtown Los Angeles. Historic records, like those by councilmembers no longer in office, can be viewed by appointment. Current public officials’ records, however, can only be pulled by members of that council office or made available through a California Public Records request.

While Ryu was pleased with today’s action, his office is still waiting on the city’s recommendation for creating new policy for city administrations in transition.

“This is a good step,” Estevan Montemayor, spokesperson for Ryu, said today, “but we still want to see the ‘transition’ plan.”

Last December, Ryu authored a motion asking for the city’s chief legislative office and the city attorney’s office for recommendations on a standardized transition plan for city council offices. It is unclear when that will be made available.

“Constituents deserve and should expect seamless transitions between councilmembers so that current cases and projects are not delayed or forgotten when our elected leaders change,” Ryu said in today’s  statement. “I strongly believe these safeguards will ensure continuity between offices, which will improve constituent outcomes during the natural flux between an incoming and outgoing council administration. Lastly, today’s vote will go a long way to restore trust in our local government.”

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