OPEN GOVERNMENT -- Two Orange County cities are using the same software program to put as many of their public records as possible on computer.  One is a relatively new customer and seems to be catching on quickly.  The other has been using it for years—or trying to—and now has trouble finding records that people come to city hall and ask for.  Tracy Wood, reporting for the Voice of OC, asks why.

For more than 40 years,
California has had a public records law that enables its citizens
to simply walk into a government office and ask to look at public
documents such as contracts, correspondence between a city and its
suppliers, or other standard documents.


But what happens if a member of the public asks the Anaheim City
Clerk's office to see a record?

"We'll allow them to view the records, if we are able to locate
them," said City Clerk Linda Andal.

Locating them seems to be the problem.

This week, Voice
of OC
asked clerk's office for the standard
conflict-of-interest forms that city council members file each
year. These are the forms that show what investments and other
holdings elected officials have that may come in conflict with
their official duties.


The documents are so ordinary that California's 1974 Political
Reform Act specifically requires them to be "open for inspection
and reproduction" during regular business hours.


Many city offices keep them in a folder near the front desk in
the clerk's office so they're readily available. In Anaheim, it
took 25 minutes and three different staffers to track them down, in
the "vault."


Another recent request by Voice of OC just to find out if, in
the past five years, Anaheim has had a contract with a specific
company, couldn't be answered during working hours at all. A
partial answer came instead in the mail about a week later.


Part of the problem, Anaheim officials say, is that the city is
in the process of transferring many of its paper records to a
computer program. It's been doing this for about eight years and a
number of basic records, like city council agendas, minutes and
city ordinances are posted on the Anaheim web site.


Cities around the state and in Orange County are doing similar
work. But others say they are not having the same issues as
Anaheim.


A Fullerton official, for example, says her city is poised to
take digital access to another level by the end of the year.


"The whole idea is to be open and to try to serve the public,"
said Fullerton City Clerk Beverley White. "We just try to put
everything out there."


And White doesn't mean just minutes, agendas and the back up
documents that go with them. She is preparing to post all current
city contracts to the city web site as well.


"My goal is (to post the contracts) by the end of the year,
maybe sooner," White said. "We're trying to scan just about
anything that comes into our office."


She'll also be posting the city council conflict of interest
forms on the web site, she said.


And White is doing all this without worrying about getting
official approval from her city council or anywhere else.


"Almost everything we have here in the office is a public
document," she said.


Meanwhile, Anaheim officials are "exploring the idea" of posting
contracts on its web site, but no decision has been made, Andal
said.


This is not good enough, said Terry Francke, general counsel for
Californians Aware and Voice of OC 's open government
consultant.

"Nowadays," he said, "there's not much excuse for having human
beings trotting around for long periods getting records that are
easily accessed online."


There appear to be two reasons for delays in Anaheim. One is it
seems city officials have set the system up poorly. The second, and
more important, reason is the city's view of public records.


From the way staff members described their records system, it
doesn't appear to be set up in a way that easily lets staff know
what is on the computer, what is on paper and where the paper files
are located.


Anaheim uses is the same computer software, Laserfiche, as do
many cities, including Fullerton and Westminster, which are both
smaller than Anaheim. But neither reported the delays in locating
information that Anaheim has appeared to experience.


White said it's important to be very careful how records are
entered in the first place. The software manufacturer advised
Fullerton to have someone type in file information and then have a
second person double check to make sure everything is spelled
correctly.


In addition, she said, the software itself can check for similar
spellings and words within the text that help identify it.


Then there is Anaheim's overall approach to public records.


Members of the public should be able to walk in and look at
records that are in the clerk's office, either on computer or on
paper in file folders. In the case of old records stored off-site
it is reasonable to expect a day or so turnaround time, or the
requester may have to go to another office.


If someone wants city staff to make copies, or, if records can't
easily be found, the city has a maximum of 10 days to meet the
request. For exceptionally large or difficult requests, they can
ask for an extension of the time limit.


All of this is a basic requirement of California law that has
been in place since 1968.


"There is no provision in the California Public Records Act
authorizing a public agency routinely to tell requesters to 'come
back in 10 days,' or words to that effect," Francke has said.


But Anaheim appears to discourage walk-ins. And City Attorney
Cristina Talley didn't respond to a request to discuss the way the
city enforces the public records law.


Instead, the city provides an online
form
for residents to file a written request and a notice that
says the city has 10 days to determine if the records exist.


What the form doesn't say is that making an determination in
Anaheim these days seems far from a sure thing.