Welcome to the year of bureaucrats' and politicians' emails and text messages.
Or at least what I will hope will be the year of bureaucrats' and politicians' emails and text messages. I intend to write a lot this year about seeking the electronic communications of government officials, and will post what I find on this newspaper's website.
That's because getting them is harder than you think.
The problems in obtaining the electronic records stand in defiance of a basic fact: Government communications in which the public's business is discussed don't belong to the writer.
They belong to you.
And the law makes no exceptions for paper or electronic communication.
But too many people in government block access to electronic correspondence despite its overwhelming public nature and what should be routine disclosure.
Email and texting are simply the delivery systems through which government workers and politicians, like the rest of us, routinely communicate. We don't need to get caught up in the semantics of technology.
It isn't how the writing is sent that matters, it's the writing itself. California law defines public records as "any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public's business (that is) prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristic."
That broad definition is meant to capture all writing. It really
But messages "containing information relating to the conduct of the people's business" are unquestionably public records.
In late October I asked for Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana's emails and text messages for the days surrounding the Oct. 25 police raid of the Occupy tent city at City Hall.
Oakland's leaders often claim their government has a transparent culture and point to a Sunshine Ordinance that sets stricter standards than state transparency laws. But those claims are baloney.
Three months after the request, I am still waiting for more than 700 of Santana's emails and some logical explanation about others her staff is withholding or censoring. In November I wrote that Quan, also, was taking far too long to release emails. But at least the mayor eventually did release those records, and they are now posted on this newspaper's website for public viewing.
Santana released some emails last month, more than seven weeks after they were requested. Her staff didn't even acknowledge the request for weeks.
Then, when I pointed out that no emails were released for entire days covered in the request, deputy city attorney Vicki Laden claimed the process had to start over, which, at best, is bureaucratic incompetence.
Failure to comply quickly and eagerly with transparency laws tells us a lot about the character of the people. The three months and counting it has taken for Santana to fully comply with such a routine request raises serious questions about her ethics and competence -- questions that should worry Oakland residents about her ability and qualifications to run their government.
And it gets worse. At least Quan released her text messages, clearly acknowledging they are public records.
"She routinely and promptly deletes text messages from her phone, and no longer has text messages from the time period indicated in your request," city attorney Barbara Parker wrote to me last month.
But text messages containing city business are public records. And public records can't simply be thrown away at the whim of the person possessing them. All public records -- even text messages -- must be retained for at least two years and then only destroyed through a process that involves approval of a government lawyer.
It is difficult to believe that Santana, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with 18 years of government experience, could attain leadership of a major city without understanding the basic rules of government.
Why, exactly, would she so hastily delete public records?
If and when I get all her emails, I will post them. Welcome to a new year.
Read Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's emails and text messages concerning the Oct. 25 raid on Occupy Oakland at ContraCostaTimes.com.