ESCONDIDO — At its Oct. 24 meeting, with no deliberation, the Escondido City Council voted unanimously to destroy a tranche of records under the city’s document retention policy.
Passed as part of the Consent Calendar, the document destruction is part of an annual ritual by the city of Escondido, authorized to do so under California Code 34090. That state law allows for governmental bodies to destroy most documents after warehousing them for a time period of two years.
“Unless otherwise provided by law, with the approval of the legislative body by resolution and the written consent of the city attorney the head of a city department may destroy any city record, document, instrument, book or paper, under his charge, without making a copy thereof,” reads that statute.
This excludes court records and “minutes, ordinances, or resolutions of the legislative body or of a city board or commission,” the statute further outlines. Section 34090 also mandates that records pertaining to title details for property must also be kept on-file.
According to the 16-page Destruction Report published by the city of Escondido as part of the broader City Council Meeting Agenda packet for Oct. 24, several types of records will now go by the wayside per the City Council’s vote.
They include three years’ worth of documents on the city’s housing relocation assistance program, six decades of data on code enforcement for business licenses dating back to the 1950s, 2004-2015 documents pertaining to recreational classes offered by the city, several months’ worth of inventory lists of public records requests made to the city during 2015 and more.
Escondido is not the only North County city which has voted to destroy records in recent years. Oceanside, Encinitas and Del Mar have also utilized section 34090 during the past several years in order to vote for destruction of governmental documents.
Nothing about what Escondido and other North County cities have done runs afoul of state law, though critics point to increased e-storage of records as a best practice the cities should shoot for.
“Given the relatively inexpensive cost of e-storage, the government should be holding these records much longer,” explained Cory Briggs, San Diego-based attorney for Briggs Law Corporation. “Meanwhile, a lot of litigation against cities comes more than two years later. The destruction of records that could help taxpayers defeat frivolous lawsuits or expose public officials’ crimes against taxpayers does a disservice to the public.”
The First Amendment Coalition, based in San Rafael, California, points out that even California’s Public Records Act is superseded by section 34090, meaning that it can cited as a means of denying such a request.
Donna Frye, the former president of CalAware and member of the San Diego City Council from 2001-2010, said that records are worth preserving because they keep the historic record alive for future generations of lawyers, journalists and researchers. CalAware is an organization which advocates for increased governmental transparency throughout California.
“The laws should be revisited to keep up with the changing technology,” Frye said. “Maintaining public records is important because we cannot predict today what information may be useful in the future. The more historical information we have, the better.”
John Masson, a member of the Escondido City Council, points out that even electronic storage of records, though, takes up staff time and is technically not free.
“From a policy perspective, I don’t have a problem destroying old records as long as we are in compliance with current law,” Masson said. “Maintaining and storing records takes up space and time (and) even if you convert everything to a digital format, someone has to convert, catalog and manage the data.”
Masson cautioned, though, that careful thought should be put into which records are destroyed and which are maintained.
“I’m kind of a ‘pack rat’ and think that someday there could be some value holding onto certain items the difficult thing is knowing which ones,” he said.
Escondido City Attorney Michael McGuinness said that the balancing act described by Masson ensues with each decision to destroy or retain city documents.
“The city has a robust imaging program such that we are digitizing certain records that must be maintained for longer periods allowing us to save costs of storage. The city also does retain certain original records that have specific importance or for historical purposes,” said McGuinness. “However, paying storage costs for records that have little to no evidentiary or historical value, or are not needed to conduct the city’s business, is not a good expenditure of taxpayer funds.”
For Matthew Halgren, a San Diego-based attorney for the firm Sheppard Mullin, it comes down to striking a balance between the cost of electronic storage of the records on a server — which he pointed out is also not free — and the public interest in storage of the records.
Halgren also said he has heard anecdotally that in cities throughout the state, there has been an uptick in “public agencies systematically destroying records,” a trend he finds troubling as it relates to governmental transparency.
“I don’t want to impute bad intentions to any particular agency or official, but I am concerned that, in some cases (of records destruction), there may be other motivations at play, including a desire to limit public scrutiny,” Halgren said. Section 34090 does “not take into account that data in government records may be indispensable for social or other scientific research. Consider, for example, records held by county health agencies that could be used to determine if environmental conditions are having adverse health impacts over time. Data going back years or decades can be indispensable to this kind of research.”
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.