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July 25th, 2005


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01:37 pm - Opinion editorial - SF Chronicle

Fun, games with right to know
Chip Johnson; SFgate.com; Monday, July 25, 2005; p. B-1 hardcopy

How easy -- or difficult -- is it for the average person to obtain information from Oakland's city record keepers? The Oakland chapter of the League of Women Voters found out.

It sent 27 testers, including league members and a half-dozen teenagers who volunteered from Oakland's Fremont High School, to City Hall to ask for public documents.

The results: City officials delivered on 70 percent of the requests overall -- but less than half the requests made by the kids.

"Using a bunch of little old white ladies to ask for information is a pretty thin slice of life, so I thought it would be good idea to use students to ask the same questions and see how they compared,'' said Barbara Newcombe, 82, who directed the league study.

Seniors were provided with the information 8 of 10 times that they asked, a far cry better than Newcombe fared 15 years earlier while doing research for a book. The high school students, on the other hand, made seven requests to city offices for information, but only three were honored.

Among the 12 Oakland city agencies and institutions queried, five of them -- the city's human resources department, public works, the city clerk, cultural arts and marketing departments -- dropped the ball on some or all of the requests made of them. The Oakland Unified School District failed to fulfill the lone records request asked of it.

Newcombe is no stranger to the information highway or the best practices of sound records management, even if Bay Area public agencies are. Before she retired, Newcombe was a librarian for the Chicago Tribune, one of the nation's largest newspapers and certainly an institution with a dire need for accurate and complete records.

She worked in the main office in Chicago as well as the paper's Washington, D.C., bureau office. And she wrote a reference book on public records when she retired.

The book, "Paper Trails,'' lists the lion's share of documents at all levels of government that are supposed to be available to the public upon request. It was first published in 1990 by the Center for Investigative Reporting, and was so popular that it was reprinted in 1996. Her attempts to interview record keepers in Oakland, San Diego and Los Angeles were met with mixed results.

What Newcombe found while researching the book in 1989 and 1990 was that none of the state's largest cities had much in the way of a records management system, she said.

She struggled with gatekeepers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and cities in Orange County. In one specific case, a representative of Oakland's Public Works Agency refused to provide her with even blank documents that she could use to describe what kinds of information the public agencies seek to maintain.

"I thought it would be easy to update the information in Oakland by asking for blank forms of the record,'' she explained.

And Newcombe isn't the only one to hit a brick wall while in a government office.

The results of an exhaustive newspaper study conducted in Contra Costa County in 2004 revealed scores of violations and outright refusals from some public employees who didn't seem to know the difference between a public and a protected document -- and others who didn't seem to care.

In one case, a Mount Diablo School District employee told a Contra Costa Times reporter that in the post-9/11 era she wasn't comfortable releasing public information to someone who refused to identify themselves.

Does that mean a simple request from a citizen must be vetted for violations of the Patriot Act before a decision is made whether to release something as innocuous as a list of directories of boards and commissions, campaign disclosure statements or members of a city council subcommittee?

If that is so, we are closer to losing our freedoms than most people ever realized, including me -- and I make these kinds of requests all the time.

What is more likely is that local governments with antiquated record- keeping systems probably aren't all that sure where to find specific information themselves.

Newcombe points out that reporters and media representatives are more insistent than the typical resident, and she's right. That's because the lame excuses that might discourage a resident only make a journalist more determined.

Perhaps the most aggravating response to public-record requests is when city officials challenge the public's right to know on the grounds that making information public would be an infringement of employee's privacy rights.

In a government office? I don't think so.

Consider the recent fight to convince the city of Oakland that it had no right to withhold employees' salaries. City officials argued that disclosing such information violated the privacy rights of their employees.

That's just about the sorriest argument on record, and an Alameda County Superior Court judge agreed, ordering the city to disclose the information under the state's open-government laws.

That was just about the pinnacle of bureaucratic incompetence and a cold slap at the very people who pay those salaries.

Does the public have the right to know? Of course they do, silly.

( | Speak up!)


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