OC’s biggest cities take different tacks to thwart compliance with Public Records Act

In Orange County it seems that the two largest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana, share a common desire; to not comply with public records and information requests. They just go about accomplishing their goals differently.

First let’s take the case of Anaheim that has been nailed this past week by a series of reports by investigative reporter Adam Elmahrek of Voice of OC who discovered first one and now two management memo’s that threaten employees with disciplinary action if they do not delete all emails, correspondence, and office memos, particularly the embarrassing ones like the discovered memos. If the first memo circulated to staff by a planning department manager wasn’t bad enough (we discussed it on Tuesday here), the second one, sent to code enforcement employees, was even more specific in citing the city manager as the “apparent” source of the directive.

The latest memo, from Anaheim Community Preservation Manager Sandra Sagert, ordered employees to “not to archive emails for any purpose.” Elmahrek reports;

In the email sent to code enforcement employees, Sagert referred to an email, which she said was produced in response to a records request, that has a disparaging comment about a “popular property owner.” The identity of the property owner is not revealed.

“As you can imagine, the City Manager was not happy,” the email reads. “This incident was not in our division and I would like to keep it that way!”

Later on Thursday Elmahrek reported:

After remaining silent nearly a week on an Anaheim Planning Department manager’s order that department employees purge their records, Mayor Tom Tait Thursday issued a statement acknowledging that the order was “a mistake.”

“The City has a retention schedule and administrative regulations for the management of public records in accordance with state laws,” Tait declared in an email sent to news media. “Unfortunately, these emails within the Planning Department and the manner in which they were articulated were a mistake.”

“We are taking corrective action to assure this does not happen again,” he added.

It appears that Mayor Tait didn’t know about the second memo when he issued his statement. For city workers with city email accounts the job of managing what to keep and what not to keep is “Mission Impossible.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the next thing they’ll see is a message flashed across their computer screens in Microsoft Outlook stating:

You are instructed to delete this message once you read it. Failure to do so shall result in disciplinary action. As always, should you be caught deleting a disclosable public record by the authorities, the City Manager will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Good luck. If you fail to immediately delete this message, your job will self-destruct in five seconds.

But Santa Ana seems to have the matter of not responding to public records requests down to a science. If they don’t want to disclose something, they don’t tell their employees to delete their mail or destroy documents, they just refuse to disclose the information.

Case in point, LiberalOC requested the costs associated with the “Agent for Change” forum co-hosted by the city to repair the anti-Semitic image of Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez. Interim City Manager Paul Walters told us that the event “didn’t cost the city a dime.” We asked what about the costs for the staff that supported the event. We were told that they didn’t track those costs. We offered to do so for them and requested the salary information for the employees involved. They responded by dumping the contracts with all city bargaining units in our inbox, which do not disclose individual employee salary data.

It should be noted that the California Public Records Act requires the city to respond to requests to produce records and disclose information. It is not enough to simply say we didn’t track the costs, therefore we don’t have a document with that information on it to give you. In addition, the California Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that disclosure of annual salary and benefit information for public employees is required upon request, except for very narrowly limited instances.

Ours is just one example of many that we and other media outlets have experienced repeatedly in dealing with the City of Santa Ana.

So to summarize, in Anaheim they tell their employees to destroy all records so they won’t be available for disclosure, and in Santa Ana the City Attorney simply lets them not respond at all.

Given that both methods demonstrate a complete lack of transparency and total disregard for the requirements of California Law, I’m left with one question. Which tactic is worse?

  1 comment for “OC’s biggest cities take different tacks to thwart compliance with Public Records Act

  1. PayAttentionCostaMesa
    January 6, 2012 at 10:12 am

    PAY ATTENTION COSTA MESA READERS – Charter cities like the “flexibility” they somehow think it grants. Think it’s bad now? Wait til the entitled elected and management start making the rules up as they go.

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