On countless occasions over the last 20 years, Oakland city officials and residents have requested public documents and received them in an untimely fashion – if at all.

It’s a problem rooted not to an unwillingness to disclose the information, but to a records management system “that doesn’t work very well,” according to City Auditor Courtney Ruby, who has been pushing for reform since she took office in 2007.

“When we go to look for records we can’t find them,” Ruby said. “It shouldn’t be a hunting expedition.”

Progress was made on July 20 when the Oakland City Council unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the city clerk’s office to commence with development work for drafting a comprehensive Citywide Records Management Program.

Although the city adopted the existing Citywide Records Management Ordinance in 1991, authorizing the creation of a program, the ordinance was never codified and full understanding, legal participation and legal requirements of the city’s records policies has not been achieved.

“Right now, that policy is very fractured and so this program is designed to get the city’s arms around its very, very many records and begin to put them into a comprehensive, organized format,” said Daniel Purnell, executive director of the Public Ethics Commission, which has become involved when records are not produced to citizens in reasonable time.

Modernizing how records are kept is critical for Oakland because it is one of the oldest charter cities, established more than 150 years ago, said Councilwoman Jean Quan, chairperson of the Finance and Management Committee, which adopted the program resolution.

“The whole idea of how you keep your history is a big job,” Quan said. “The amount of information is growing geometrically and now we have to keep track of emails and all sorts of other things.”

On Dec. 15, the Finance and Management Committee considered a staff report and a series of proposed amendments to the existing ordinance. Implementation of the ordinance was delayed until the city clerk’s office was sufficiently staffed to develop the program.

With the hiring of the new records manager in April, the city clerk’s office is now capable of moving forward. There is “a long list” of analysis work to be done, including interviews with each city department to see how each handles, processes and scores records, said the new records manager Deidre Scott.

“As we gather information, we’ll be making changes to the program as need be,” Scott said. “We have several months ahead of us of research and things to look at.”

An effective program is good news for other city officials including City Attorney John Russo, who advocated for a more orderly system since his first term in 2001 and co-wrote Op/Eds with Ruby that were published in The Oakland Tribune in 2008 and 2009.

The city attorney’s office “is really interested” in the effort because records from various departments are necessary in lawsuits, Russo’s Communications Director, Alex Katz, said.

“When someone sues, we have to go back and look at what the (documents say) and unfortunately, sometimes we cannot do that because they’ve disappeared or because the city deletes emails from its server after a really short time,” Katz said.

The draft program will go before the Public Ethics Commission and Rules Committee for review within the six-month development period, before Council members discuss the schedule of implementation. Costs associated with implementing the program will be determined as the draft program is developed with more research, Scott said.

Regardless, having a comprehensive system would save the city time, money and resources, Purnell said, and “hopefully improve the city’s ability to respond to multi-departmental requests.”

In addition, the program will establish much-needed guidelines for what information must be kept and what can be disposed of, said Rules Committee Chairperson and Council President Jane Brunner.

“It’s very cumbersome to keep every single piece of paper that comes into the office,” she said. “There are a lot of technical things … want to make sure we understand, know what the rules are.”

Apart from city officials, one nonprofit organization – the League of Women Voters of Oakland – has consistently advocated for the program.

“We want the records to be there for people to be able to see them,” said league member and former president Helen Hutchison, 57. “We believe very strongly that that’s part of being a transparent government.”


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