How can Oakland improve access to public records?

For the most part, the goings on at the Oakland Public Ethics Commission (PEC) tend to not get a whole lot of attention. Occasionally, they’ll get some press when they’ve got something about campaign financing on the agenda (although a lot of those issues pass by unnoticed too, like District 4 City Council candidate Jill Broadhurst’s retroactive request for public campaign financing (PDF), which she had previously said she could not take “in good conscience”).

But most of what fills PEC agendas is not related to the thrilling world of public campaign financing. Mostly they just deal with ethics complaints. And they’ve got no shortage of complaints to deal with — check out their pending list (PDF) to get an idea of how many of those suckers come in.

I don’t know if it’s some great tragedy that all these complaints don’t get a whole lot of attention. I usually get DVDs of the PEC meetings after the fact, and most of the time I find them beyond mind numbing. One problem is that the PEC is often powerless to do anything about complaints that may be legitimate. I mean, they might forward an issue to the FPPC or the District Attorney, but at that point, the Commission is basically just an elaborate middleman. The other problem is that a lot of the complaints are about extreme technicalities and nitpicky nonsense that people file to just screw with each other.

Although many of the complaints that come to the PEC seem to be motivated by some petty desire to “get” whoever the complainant is angry with at the moment, the Commission itself doesn’t generally take the bait. Even though the origin of many (not all) ethics complaints seems to involve wanting to punish political enemies for wrongs, whether real or perceived, the Commission admirably tends to focus on fixing things rather than just being punitive.

One issue the PEC deals with frequently in complaints is public records requests.

The California Public Records Act

You see, in California we have this thing called the California Public Records Act (CPRA). Basically, it says that the public has the right to review government documents relating to the public’s business. What is and what is not a “public record” is sometimes disputed (the government tends to have a more narrow interpretation than the media and the public), but good primers are available here and here (PDF).

So here’s how it’s supposed to work. If you decide you want some a record, you fill out a public records request and submit it to the City. You can do this easily by filling out on online records request form. You tell them what you want, with as much detail as possible. Then, within 10 days, they either give you the records you asked for (they’re allowed to charge you for the cost of photocopies) or they tell you that they need an extra two weeks or they tell you they’re not going to provide what you asked for at all and explain why they’re allowed to not give them to you.

The law says that they’re required to help you get what you need. Like, if you fill out your request wrong, they’re supposed to help you figure out how to do it properly in order to get the information you’re looking for. If they decide not to provide the records, they’re supposed to explain why whatever you asked for is not considered a public record under the CPRA.

Sometimes it works like that. A lot of times it doesn’t. Sometimes they say records aren’t covered under the CPRA when they are. Sometimes they say the records you requested don’t exist when you know for a fact that they do. Sometimes they just tell you that they don’t have time to produce the records you asked for because they’re short staffed and that maybe they’ll have time to get to it in a month or two. And when the City of Oakland fails to produce public records as required by the law, your recourse is to file a complaint with the Public Ethics Commission.

Access to public records in Oakland

The PEC spends a lot of time talking about these record-related complaints. Back in October, they decided that the ongoing issue of access to public records merited broader attention than simply considering each case individually as they come up. In December, the Commission approved an outline for a series of hearings (PDF) aimed at gaining a better understanding of the records access problem and figuring out a way to improve it.

You can watch a video of that discussion below.

They’re going to have at least three hearings (possibly four), which will be broken down by topic.

The first hearing will be devoted to getting testimony from members of the public about their experience trying to get public records:

Staff will prepare in advance on the hearing a written briefing on applicable law and any relevant internal protocols pertaining to public record requests. Commission staff recommends that the majority of hearing time be devoted to receiving comments from members of the public regarding their experience with obtaining records from the City. To that end, Commission staff will invite members of the public who routinely seek records from the City, as well as people who have in the past expressed difficulty in obtaining City records. At the Committee’s suggestion, staff will invite comments from persons who have filed complaints with the Commission in recent years on public records issues.

For the second hearing, they’ll hear from the people who have to produce the records.

Commission staff recommends that the second hearing be devoted to receiving comments from those within the City who are responsible for coordinating responses to public records requests. Representatives from the Offices of the City Clerk and City Attorney, as well as from agency and department information officers, would be logical participants. Based on the information obtained from the first hearing, the Commission will be able to suggest in advance specific questions for these representatives to address.

For the third hearing, they’ll take a step back and look at how other cities deal with these problems.

Commission staff recommends a third hearing to receive suggestions from various “open government” organizations and to review “best practices” from other local agencies to improve Oakland’s ability to respond to public records requests.

Then, based on all they’ve learned, they’ll start working on crafting specific recommendations, whether administrative or legislative, to improve the process.

So I think this is just great! Too often, the City’s approach to deal with complicated problems is totally haphazard and unproductive. It’s encouraging to see the PEC breaking down the issue into parts and structuring their consideration of the matter in such a way that they can use each hearing to build on what was learned at the last one.

First hearing is on February 2nd

The first of these hearings is going to take place on Wednesday, February 2nd in City Council Chambers at 7 PM. I’m not sure if they’ve scheduled the other ones yet. I saw a little flyer about them the other day, and quickly made a note “2/2/11 7PM CCC,” and then just handed it back, since I had assumed (foolishly, in retrospect) that I would be able to get the flyer online. It’s possible that it is there. But I couldn’t find it.

Anyway. If you have had problems accessing public records in the past, the Ethics Commission wants to hear from you. So mark the date on your calendar!

17 thoughts on “How can Oakland improve access to public records?

  1. MarleenLee

    Thank you for highlighting this important issue. I’ve submitted around 34 requests to the City in the last two years. They have failed to comply with the 10 day rule two thirds of the time. In the other cases, they have, most of the time, either failed to produce the records promptly, refused to produce the records at all, claimed the records were lost, demanded outrageous sums of money (which is illegal) or in some other way tried to obstruct my right to records. Oh, and I’m a litigious lawyer, and you’d think they’d try to be a little bit more careful about responding to my requests on time. But they’re not.
    Let me just emphasize that I filed my original complaint back in September, 2009. The PEC’s Executive Director has been stalling and stalling and stalling, and here we are, a year and a half later, and there is finally going to be a hearing. Well, I filed my lawsuit on this issue back in March of 2010, and it is going to trial in March of this year, so chances are, it is faster to sue the City over public records violation than to go through the PEC. But whatever. Any opportunity to expose and embarrass the City for its absolute ABYSMAL record in legal compliance is a good thing.

  2. Downtown_Celeb

    One of the typical excuses used by the City for slowness or lack of compliance, and it’s something that is a part of every proposal or discussion, is the claimed need for staff training.

    That is, the City regularly uses the excuse that staff needs to be trained on how to deal with records requests and the accompanying time limits – what nonsense! It’s not rocket science and ten days means ten days.

    The other thing that needs to happen is that records management by all employees at all levels needs to be part of each employee’s annual evaluation. This would mean that each employ would be reminded of the requirements annually – no more ignorance claims.

  3. NH

    Thanks for the post, V, I love this issue!

    In my experience (I’ve filed about 5 requests), records requests were almost never responded to on time (a month+ seems the average response time so far). The city is slammed and I understand why records request take a low priority, so it has not personally bothered me too much; however, from a research or accountability perspective, that is an unbearably long delay. So far I’ve only had one case where there was no response at all. In that case the agency had marked that they had fulfilled my request, presumably by inadvertance.

    In my experience, if you want your records faster, it is best to find out who is handling your request (call the agency the request was submitted to) and follow-up directly with them.

    I think a lot of the burden on staff could be lessened if the City had a better online records management system. I’m not too pleased with Legistar.

  4. MarleenLee

    City offiicals absolutely need training. But this is putting the cart before the horse: training in what? Before they’re trained, the City needs a policy and procedure so that officials are clear on what they’re supposed to do. What about requests that encompass multiple departments? What about requests for documents that are exempt from disclosure? What about repercussions for violations? The City Council members are among the worst offenders. Most recently, Desley Brooks refused to respond in any way to a request for her calendars. She refused to cooperate with the City Attorney’s office in putting together a response. She refused to cooperate with the PEC in its investigation. Absolutely, positively outrageous! The City Attorney’s office claims department heads are responsible for compliance; department heads claim this is the City Attorney’s responsibility. It is mass chaos, and the City is REFUSING to fix the problem.

  5. We Fight Blight

    We are aware of PRA requests to the City of Oakland wherein the requestor has identified very specific documents, for a very short and specific time frame, the person who was the keeper/possessor of the documents, and the specific physical location of the documents. The City’s response has essentially been a form letter indicating the volume of documents requested and the various locations of said documents required additional time to comply with the PRA request. Huh?

    We are aware of PRA requests to City Councilmembers, such as Desley Brooks, that were ignored, despite repeated requests for compliance, until there was a threat of litigation and complaints to the City Attorney. The Councilmember provided only a portion of the documents requested well after the time requirement to comply.

    We are aware of long-term, high level City Managers, who do not understand the basic requirements of the PRA, failed to understand that a request for all documents, written, recorded, digital, etc. means all documents, and then failed to provide all documents. They did not realize that documents include internal emails, unless specifically excluded under the PRA.

    Oakland seems to have a problem with transparency and the PRA. Oakland City staff seem to have problems with a basic understanding and acceptance that they work for the public, are accountable to the public, and must provide public documents to the public when requested.

    Not sure if this is a lack of training, intentional lack of transparency, incompetency or that they just don’t care and don’t take seriously their role as stewards of the public’s trust.

  6. MarleenLee

    WFB: At this stage, I have to believe it is a combination of all of the above, including intentional lack of transparency. If it were not intentional, the City would be willing to acknowledge its shortcomings and work toward a solution. For a year and a half I have put forward numerous proposals on how the City can improve, drawing on my expertise as a public sector lawyer who regularly deals with records requests on behalf of public agencies. The City has refused to even discuss options for improving the system. I offered to drop my entire lawsuit alleging repeated violations if the City would just adopt a policy and commit to complying with the law. They refused. What does that tell you? Please come to the hearing and share your experiences.

  7. len raphael

    speaking of record keeping, whatever happened to the subpoenas that Sanjiv reported were served on CEDA by the feds and the state a couple of weeks ago?

  8. len raphael

    Well gag me with a blight citation.

    Does it cover third parties such as the media?

    ie. couldn’t the media have at least mentioned it and the background? instead there was complete radio silence except for sanjiv. (bless him, every, so often he comes thru with a nugget)


  9. Dax

    Speaking of public records, does anyone know if mayoral candidate Marcie Hodge ever filed her final campaign finance report for the Nov. 2 election? If so, anything interesting regarding the various sources of funds for the much talked about billboards etc.?

  10. RdwithCypress

    Sent: Thursday, January 20, 2011 10:36 AM
    To: ‘’;
    Subject: Meeting notice

    All, please find attached the notice that I received regarding yesterday evening’s meeting.

    The notice is missing two critical items: (1) Time; (2) Location.

    Such omissions cause me to wonder whether the Commission is committed to adhering to the policies over which it has oversight responsibility.

    In case my points were not understood yesterday evening, I will reiterate here what the Commission needs to understand about the PTS database. First, my own background. I started working on DB2 in 1992 in Japan by reverse engineering a broken DB2 database. Most recently, I was a software designer at PeopleSoft.

    The public PTS terminal at 250 Frank Ogawa Plaza was set up there at my pressuring. Knowing what databases are capable of, and due to a controversy foisted upon me by Raymond Derania’s organization, I made what I know was and remains a simple request; I asked for all complaints of a certain type. It’s a simple concept; one wants to know how similar situations have been dealt with over a period of time. The answer I received was that it would be impossible to derive the information I sought from the “archaic” (;P) PTS database and I would have to search through records one-at-a-time to try to find the “needle in a haystack.” As it turns out, there are already many queries residing in the PTS database. You Excel, SQL, and Access users will understand that language (not to mention Oracle, PeopleSoft, OpenOffice). As it turns out, city IT staff routinely create new queries upon request by CEDA staff. This is documented in the PTS database itself!!! (8=Display description, which reveals the date the query was created, who created it, etc.)

    I am confident that those of you on the commission who find this material relatively easy to digest will do your best to disabuse other commission members of the falsities that have been conveyed and portrayed about the PTS database. Here is the iSeries online FREE user manual. Network Communications explains how to use FTP to transfer files, including database objects. There is a section on Database as well, where you can learn the truth about the robust, extensible, Universal DB2.

    Facts about the PTS database:
    (1) It is “written” in the native database of the iSeries (formerly AS400) computer: DB2 (AKA the Universal Database). The average iPod, iPhone, Blackberry, Windows, Mac user should not have a problem understanding the user interface, which uses words and numbers (i.e., 3=Copy, 4=Delete, 7=Rename). It is mouse-navigable, even though the interface doesn’t look like Windows; just click the cursor into position on the screen like one does on any modern computer.
    (2) The database is comprised of scores of discrete files, tables, queries, reports (referred to as Objects in the IBM DB2 reference manual).
    (3) Confidential data, such as credit card information, resides in readily identifiable database objects/files that contain the descriptive word “credit card.”
    (4) The procedure for FTP transfer of database objects over the Internet allows for transfer of individual database files by their specific name. Therefore, unless one specifically attempts to transfer a database file containing the credit card information, there is no reason for that information to be transmitted. On the other hand, one may wish to transfer a file called INSPECTION HISTORY BY COMPLAINT.
    (5) The iSeries is modern technology.
    (6) What Ken Gordon has stated is impossible or expensive is actually something built-in to the operating system of the iSeries DB2 Permit Tracking System database. FTP is modern technology used around the world to transfer large files between computers and servers over great distances instantaneously. FTP is built-in to the iSeries. Once an FTP connection has been established between the iSeries and an FTP server (i.e., WikiLeaks) one simply types the word PUT followed by the file name (i.e., APNCC2). Then press Enter.
    (7) Learn to discern the truth from outright lies. If you want the truth, you may contact me directly during normal business hours.

    One point I did not make. I have taken almost two years away from work in order to push this issue. I voluntarily represent victims of Building Services throughout Oakland who have received my support in obtaining records they were told did not exist. Why? Because the lack of access to this information and the continued profit-making by CEDA Building Services for records research causes injustice to constituents daily. Many people have lost their homes in Oakland simply because the City fails to make building records available to the public.

    The business of the people is the people’s business. When the government fails to allow the public access to its own business, the people lose their first line of defense against incompetence, unethical behavior, fraud, waste, and abuse: fact checking.

    Pick up the phone during normal business hours and call every other municipality in California and ask about obtaining building records. Remove the scales from your eyes. Digital is digital. We don’t need a new permit tracking system. We need honest and competent staff and an ethics commission willing to call them out when they are disingenuous.

  11. Livegreen

    So r Jean and her additions to the Public Ethics Commission going to add openness to the Public Records system, or r they going to continue the status quo and just tilt mismanagement to their political interests instead of those of her predecessors?

    I know it is early in her Administration but the discussions r ongoing. And she can still send a message to current commissioners, while we watch how things develop…

  12. FloodedByCEDA

    Oakland Agency Selects Municipal Software’s CityView for Permitting, Code Enforcement
    Victoria, British Columbia, September 23rd, 2005-Municipal Software (TSX-V:MSZ) is pleased to announce that the City of Oakland’s (Calif.) Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA) has selected the company to provide an integrated permitting and code enforcement tracking system (PCETS) for the City. Oakland will use CityView’s Application Builder to develop new applications to streamline numerous services.

    According to Claudia Cappio, the City’s Development Director, “CityView sets the foundation for us to offer a wider variety of services to staff and citizens. Once implemented, we will be able to share information online with citizens and contractors and allow our field staff to work more efficiently via remote access.”

  13. FloodedByCEDA

    The new system will replace the current manual system, provide 24-hour on-line access
    to information and forms, and interface with the County Assessor/Recorder databases
    for accurate ownership data. Using the system’s self-service feature, constituents will be
    able to track the status of inspections, apply for land development and building permits,
    look up contracts and buildings plans as well as request and print official documents.