League of Women Voters: What is Records Management – and Why Should You Care About it?

Records management is the practice of maintaining the records of an organization — in this case, the City of Oakland — from the time they are created up to their eventual disposal. This may include the classification, storage, securing, and destruction of records.1 Capability for timely record retrieval is also a key part of a modern records management system.

The League of Women Voters can attest that Oakland City government lacks the tools to ensure that its records are easy for City staff and citizens to access and use. The Public Ethics Commission fields numerous complaints that have to do with missing records or failure to produce records. Last year this pattern of complaints led the PEC to propose to the City Council revisions to the Sunshine Ordinance (PDF) designed to set uniform records standards for the city. Despite strong support by the City Attorney and City Auditor, the Council’s Finance and Management Committee deferred the issue pending more study.

The proposal is finally coming back (PDF) to the Finance and Management Committee on December 15 (12 noon, City Hall Hearing Room 1). The League will be there to urge the adoption of the PEC’s recommendations (PDF). Oakland needs a framework for city policies and procedures, a systematic process for dealing with records that will be used throughout city government.

Basic records management is required by the California Public Records Act (CPRA), which requires that all public agencies make all their records, with some very few exceptions, accessible to the public. In order for records to be accessible, the city staff needs to be able to find them. The citizens of Oakland have a right to expect that their city government can and will comply with the requirements of the CPRA.

While there may be costs for putting a comprehensive records management system in place, having records in an efficient, easily accessible order will save the city money in the long run. Staff will spend less time searching for records and responding to complaints, and more time serving the public.

We can also expect savings from timely collection of records necessary to defend the city against lawsuits which now result all too often in unnecessarily long proceedings and/or unfavorable judgments and settlements.

In order to enact strong records management the city needs a strong policy – the records management ordinance changes to the Sunshine Ordinance – from the City Council and a strong commitment from the administration that it will enforce the policy. The City Clerk has made her statement of commitment by hiring a professional records manager to oversee the program. However, the records manager does not operate in a vacuum. Without full cooperation from all city departments, the records manager will not be able to do his or her job. The City Administrator must make a strong statement that records management has his full backing, and make it a high priority for everyone who does work for the city.

The proposal before the Finance and Management Committee on December 15

  • streamlines and clarifies the definition of a city record to be “ all recorded information, regardless of media format or physical characteristics, that are produced, received, owned or used” by the city in connection with its affairs or legal obligations;
  • adds the City Attorney and City Auditor to the Records Management Committee;
  • provides for a review of the records management program by the Public Ethics Commission, with a public hearing;
  • clarifies the roles of the City Clerk (development and implementation of records management program for all city elected officials), agency and department heads, and the Public Ethics Commission (authorized to investigate and report on specific allegations of non-compliance with records management program);
  • clarifies that all city records are to be transferred to the City Clerk’s office upon termination of a contract or of an elected official’s term of office.

We need to let the City Council and City Administrator know that we expect them to follow up on this sane piece of legislation. We’re hoping for a good showing at the Finance and Management Committee next Tuesday, but everyone can send an email to or call the members of the committee:

Let the committee members — and the entire Council — know that you want Oakland to operate in a transparent, professional manner, and that the enactment of a strong records management ordinance is a crucial first step.

11 thoughts on “League of Women Voters: What is Records Management – and Why Should You Care About it?

  1. MarleenLee

    As somebody who has propounded numerous public records requests to the City in the past year, I can attest to the fact that the City has an abysmal track record at complying with the California Public Records Act and its own Sunshine Ordinance. However, in my opinion this legislation does not seem to go far enough. According to the City Attorney’s own website, it is the City Attorney’s office that is responsible for overseeing the Sunshine Ordinance. In my opinion, the problem seems to be with individual City departments, as well as the City Attorney’s office.

    I have a pending complaint with the Public Ethics Complaint regarding the City’s repeated failures to comply with basic provisions of the CPRA (including the requirement that the City respond within 10 days regarding whether it will/will not comply with the request and provide a date of compliance). After months of nagging and hounding, I have finally gotten most (but not all) the records I have requested. I have offered numerous times to mediate my dispute with the City/City Attorney’s office, and help them improve their procedures to ensure timely and thorough copliance, to no avail. If I, as a knowledgeable attorney who has already successfully sued the City, cannot get the City to comply with basic requirements of the CPRA, I shudder to think how the average citizen would fare. City officials’ claims of commitment to “open government” are a sad joke and they should all be ashamed.

  2. Helen

    Thanks for pointing out why this can seen as only a first step towards real records reform in Oakland. It’s only when we all continue to keep asking and — as you say nagging and hounding — that the records will continue to be there for all of us to see.

  3. John Klein

    Dear LWV,
    Thanks for this post and for your efforts in this regard. The unfortunate thing here (among many with regard to City of Oakland records) is that we are asked to view this as a “first step.” It is not…it’s really just a ‘reset.’ Not for residents, but for the City of Oakland.

    The City of Oakland has always been subject to state law with regard to transparency and requirement that its records are to be immediately available to the public. Granted, there are process and practical issues in handling records, especially electronic records.

    But, it is plainly obvious that City officials and even departments take advantage of, and use, its slipshod records management for political purposes, mostly to hide what they’ve been up to. I’ve made my share of records requests. Sometimes I’ve gotten really excellent compliance. At other times, it is obvious the respondent is simply “hiding the ball.” When that happens, you have to dig in for a long and tedious fight – City officials know this and this is how they ‘game the system” and they count on the requestor to simply give up.

    I’ve been critical of the Public Ethics Commission and probably will remain so. But, I support them when they finally do send something up to Council. This is because I believe the Council would prefer to do without a PEC, simply from its lack of support or interaction with the PEC.

    This is a big deal. I call it a “a quiet little battle of operatic proportion” and it goes on behind the scenes daily. You can strike a blow fo open government and good government in Oakland by supporting the PEC here.

  4. John Klein

    When they get to the details of the implementation, they need to include records management in annual performance evaluation. Since each employee is responsible for records, then each employee and manger needs to be evaluated annually for how they handled the responsibility. This is part of making the record management program work – it has to have consequences.

  5. Robert

    Having a document retention policy in place would be a great thing, but the biggest issue seems to be in document recovery. Recovery requires proper storage and organization, but most importantly it requires proper indexing so that you can identify the document of interest. From my own experience, this is a very difficult skill to teach when done manually. Without assignment of adequate keywords, searches fail.

    In this day and age, manually assigning keywords is no longer necessary. But based on the ‘electronic’ documents available from the Oakland web site, it may be the only choice. From what I have seen, most pdf files from the city are actually printed out, and then scanned back in. In addition to the inefficient labor involved, this eliminates the opportunity for full text searching (See the agenda report on the landmarks mentioned in the CESP for an example) You can easily convert directly from Word to a pdf file, and this process retains search-ability (and is much more efficient). Full text searching eliminates most of the problems with document recovery, because it allows documents to be found.

    It is pretty easy these days to set this up as an efficient work flow.

  6. KenO

    What do you folks propose for better doc management besides keyword assignment?

    That pre-supposes someone like VSmoothe working in RecMgnmgt who really cares about the work she is doing.

    Whether that’s carrot or stick or both the desire to do good work has to be there. Just like for OPD. What’s your reward for sticking your neck out if your boss at the top (in the records dept) doesn’t care that much? What if your political bosses (city council + mayor + top execs) don’t care for sunshine?

    The technical capabilities exist. Google hardware, custom/proprietary software, adobe, etc.

    It’s the political will that is lacking. I’ve gotten some traction going through my city council rep on basic questions. I haven’t had to ask for documents before (other than during elections) so can’t really comment on city’s doc management efficacy. Sounds from everyone here that it’s lacking though.

    It’s obviously easier for anyone to do dirty, or less than super clean work (politicians and bankers, hey!) under cover of night. Congress has passed reams of legislation this way. PATRIOT Acts I & II (and Obama’s extension of it), stimulus funding (okay, that was easier to parse), the fall 2008 banking (goldman sachs, aig) bailouts… helping your real estate buddies or construction “campaign contributors” with sweet city of oakland deals, etc.

    Text search is a definite must.

    Maybe include the archivist’s initials (KO) in the footer or first page of each document saved? Accountability and pride in one’s work (and recognition) goes a long way.

    For a less granular example, check out the “proudly maintained by concord/richmond/hayward maintenance yard” logo posted inside every BART train car.

  7. Helen

    If you read the proposal, this is just the policy, not the actual solution. The Records Management Committee will need to come up with the actual solution. My guess is that there will be a variety of different solutions, based on the different kinds of documents being searched. If you think about the city, there are a lot of different kinds of documents that they store. The key to this is that the Records Management Committee set the overall policy, and maintain overall control, so that everything is coordinated and can talk to each other.

    As everyone here has pointed out, and the League pointed out in its original paragraph, document retrieval is key.

  8. Naomi Schiff

    I think that before records are thrown out, there are some classes that should be considered for historic collections such as museum or library. Many valuable old records have been tossed, including old building plans. When we were looking for property records from the early twentieth century, for some items the best resource was the library, not the city. Photographs, even if taken as simple record shots, can be invaluable for many purposes.

  9. len raphael

    surprisingly not your typical council member/opd dog and pony show. (see my posting of last week).

    got a strong turnout of public safety activists from rockridge, a few from temescal, to what was primarily a below Telegraph North Oakland meeting. I interpret that as a growing realization that we can’t keep playing whack the mole with crime, and the bad guys don’t respect the boundaries set by realtors.

    temescal is a strange cat. it has much lower crime than the area below Tele, combined with a much lower expectation for security (and other public services) than Rockridge. So in a sense, people from Rockridge have more interests in common with people below Tele than you might think.

  10. Helen

    At the meeting last week, the committee decided that they wanted some changes, and it’s coming back to them at their first meeting in January. I think it’s January 12.