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    Public Office, Public Documents, Public Rights

    (July 31, 2006) -- LB taxpayers citywide shouldn't let what happened in their city's 5th district City Council office go without meaningful remedy.

    With all due respect, the response to destroying city documents and files, first reported by us with follow-up report on the response of former Vice Mayor/Councilwoman Jackie Kell, shouldn't be to suck a pacifier and gurgle about preventing this from happening again. It shouldn't have happened in the first place and 5th district residents, their elected representative and taxpayers citywide need to be made whole for what has happened.

    This is not about Jackie Kell. We would feel the same way about anyone -- elected official or common vandal -- who destroyed documents and files in any city office.

    City Hall offices don't belong to city officials. They belong to us. The documents and files in those offices are city property and public records. They are ours, not theirs.

    How would Councilmembers in LB's other eight districts respond if someone trashed all of their files tomorrow? Would they tell their constituents it doesn't matter? How should their constituents react? What would management say if a city employee offered the "defense" that "important" documents can be retrieved from other city files...a task diverting taxpayer-paid employees from other public work? Or tried to blame the victim for not stopping the perpetrator?

    At minimum, we believe it would be unjust to leave taxpayers holding the bag with bromides promising it won't happen again.

    If, as former Vice Mayor Kell contends, 5th district Council files can be reconstructed from files and documents in other city management offices then they should be...and Kell should reimburse taxpayers for every minute of city staff time required to do so.

    It will be the Mother of All Public Records requests, sending memos to countless City Hall offices to check files for all documents, memos, communications, emails, etc. cc'd to the 5th district office for the past eight years (if they still exist). In addition, City Hall's computer experts will have to check remote servers, archives and hard drives on the 5th district Council office computers; even hard drives that appear to have been "wiped clean" often have recoverable data still on them.

    Councilwoman Kell should be sent a bill for this. If she declines to pay, it becomes a collection matter. If she asserts a defense, she can offer that to a civil judge and see how far she gets.

    We recall the case of former Deputy City Auditor Earl Hobbs, forced to face the D.A. for the alleged unauthorized removal -- that'sremoval, not destruction -- of city documents. [It's not a perfect analogy; as we understand it, Hobbs says in effect he was a whistle-blower for taxpayers and City Hall denies this.]

    The last time we checked, California had statewide statutes governing the destruction of public documents and LB has adopted formal legal procedures for this. They enumerate the documents proposed for destruction, give the public notice and an opportunity to be heard on the matter and handle public property in an orderly process. They don't allow any one person to act as unilateral judge and jury on the matter. Councilmembers know this because they vote periodically on exactly such agendized items. LB's City Attorney shouldn't have to serve as a perpetual legal nanny for errant Councilchildren who know or should know it's not right to toss daddy's shaving kit down the toilet.

    We are unwilling to pretend that more laws are the answer if the problem rests with not enforcing current ones...and upholding the principle that public offices and public records belong to the public.

    In our opinion, taxpayers deserve a remedy that restores some semblance of a status quo ante to 5th district residents and doesn't leave LB taxpayers citywide holding the bag...again.

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