County supervisors announce proposal to improve government transparency

The County of San Diego's  East County Office includes 6,472 sq. ft. of space to archive documents.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda - U-T)

Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Joel Anderson announced Thursday, Jan. 7, a joint proposal to create an advisory committee to help improve the public’s access to government and its documents.

The proposal the Board of Supervisors will consider Tuesday, Jan. 12, includes recommendations that the committee focus on several issues, including the creation of a new public records portal where all requests and responsive documents can be collected, stored and made available to the public; an archive for easier access to historical records; new email retention policies, and ways to make the county’s system for processing public records requests more efficient.

The proposal recommends appointing Anderson and Supervisor Nora Vargas to the committee and calls for the group to produce regular progress reports and make final recommendations to the board of supervisors within 180 days.

Shortly after the pandemic arrived in spring, San Diego County officials stopped fulfilling some California Public Records Act requests, citing a threat presented by the virus. They said they did not plan to respond to certain document requests until the public health emergency order was lifted.

County spokesman Michael Workman said in May that decision was made by county administrators,but the Board of Supervisors were informed.

The proposal does not call for immediate policy changes but is intended to lay the groundwork for changes in the future, probably after the pandemic, Fletcher said.

“At the end of the day, a county government is the people’s government,” Fletcher said.

Other local governments, such as the city of San Diego, continued filling public records requests throughout the pandemic, with all requests and responsive documents available to the public on its website.

Fletcher said San Diego County does not have a unified system for storing public records complaints and responsive documents.

Without a way for the public to search to see if someone has already made the same request and see the documents the county provided in response, they have to make a new request. County staff, in turn, get more public records requests than necessary and they sometimes repeatedly hunt for and copy the same responsive records, which wastes time and resources, Fletcher said.

Also there is new state guidance outlining legal responsibilities for public records during the pandemic, so county staff will most likely take that guidance into consideration, he added.

Anderson said this proposal is his first initiative as a supervisor.

“An intense light of transparency is the best way to ensure that the public interest is served,” Anderson said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues and the public on a vigorous review process that will include the public and insure the highest standards of transparency.”

The proposal also calls for a reconsideration of the county’s policy of destroying most emails not deemed “official records” within 60 days.

The Golden Door Spa sued San Diego County in 2018 over its email destruction policy. The court ruled against the county and so did an appellate court.

Former Supervisors Greg Cox and Kristin Gaspar and current Supervisor Jim Desmond voted to continue defending the county‘s policy of deleting emails in the state’s highest court. Fletcher and former Supervisor Dianne Jacob voted against it.

The state Supreme Court in November denied the county’s request for a review of the case.

— Morgan Cook is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune