In Closed Session

There's been a bit of a flap recently about the city destroying some records, both in city departments and in some City Council offices.

It long has been policy to destroy paper records several years after they have been generated, primarily due to lack of storage space. All those meeting minutes, contracts, complaint letters, etc. fill box after box, at least in terms of hard copies.

But the last round of purging prompted some outcry. Here's what happened, as near as I can figure out.

Towards the end of 2018, plans were made to clean out files in the Financial Management Department, Grants Accounting Division, and the Development Services Department. At the same time, cleanup was set for the offices of the Second, Fourth and Fifth City Council districts.

Now the council has to approve any records destruction as sort of a stop check. Wouldn't want any officials to destroy something incriminating like, say, interpreter's notes. Not that the council members actually check what is going to be destroyed — that really would be a full-time job.

Only this time around, some self-appointed city watchdogs decided to slow the process down. One filed a Freedom of Information Public Records Request for an inventory of what was going to be destroyed.

A little more interesting is the same type of request from former Fifth District Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske for much the same thing. She is focused, not surprisingly, on the Fifth District office records.

There's a back story to this one. By and large, old council members work to create a smooth transition when someone else is taking the office over. But occasionally there's bad blood thanks to elections, and the transition is not friendly, to say the least.

Such was the case when Schipske came into office. There was no love lost between Schipske and her predecessor, Jackie Kell. There were claims that Kell took records just to make it harder on Schipske — something never confirmed, at least to my knowledge.

The current Fifth District Councilwoman, Stacy Mungo, was not Schipske's preferred choice to replace her. While the transition might have been rocky, there's no indication that records had been taken or destroyed.

Schipske, who also authors history books primarily about Long Beach, wants a list of all the documents to be destroyed in case there's something she wants.

At its Jan. 8 meeting, the City Council unanimously approved the records destruction, but not until the Public Records requests had been fulfilled.

I would not be surprised if this kerfuffle leads to a change in procedure regarding future document destruction requests. At the least, I'd assume an index of documents will be prepared in the future.

And yes, document destruction is necessary, at least for now. The aforementioned space consideration isn't going to go away soon. Besides, don't you think it's healthy to purge things that no longer are of use?

I'd like to think that city officials are going through these files to make sure anything of historic significance is preserved. Our public library houses a ton (that's only 2,000 pounds) of such documents, and will be moving them all to the basement of the new library. That preservation's important.

Don't you clear out your files now and again? Oh, keep the tax returns, the mortgage and insurance stuff, but that 10-year-old receipt for the snow blower probably can go.

There is a solution, one I hope our tech-savvy staff members are working on. That's digital storage.

Space isn't a factor with this type of storage. If you don't want hard drives laying around, it can always go into the cloud.

That's the way we store all those critical stories and pictures here at the Grunion, and most other publications do the same. Sure, there are hard copies too, especially for really important stuff like my columns, but the digital record is much more reliable.

Trying to transfer old information and documents into digital form is quite a bit of work. I had interns working on the project for a good year to get our archives back to 2001.

But it is worth the effort. Those records are now searchable, both by us and by the public. Gone are the days of microfilm (which tends to degrade anyway).

So here's a job creator. Let's start archiving all those city records digitally. The sensitive stuff (police records, personnel files) can be behind a password-protected firewall.

Most public records will be truly transparent. Now that's progress.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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