Millions Of California Public Records Shredded Without Oversight

Millions of California public records have been destroyed over the past 10 years by counties and cities with little or no oversight on the process.

Most of the public records shredding occurs under policies enacted to shield county and city governments from lawsuits.

Although digital data storage has become cheaper, California counties, cities and other government agencies continue to shred public records that could shed light on the activities of public officials.

Some of the shredded records include handwritten notes that explain reasons for official decisions.

In addition, letters, expense records, audit records, employee records, government studies, meeting agendas, government press releases and official travel records have been destroyed under this fast and loose policy.

Even the official authorization records to destroy the public records have been shredded.

State level employees have even destroyed major criminal records.

After the murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King from San Diego, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had to put a stop to the practice of destroying the parole records of convicted sex offenders.

Until the girl’s murder, the California Department of Corrections only saved sex offender parole records for a year after the convict finished parole. King’s killer had been a paroled sex offender.

Not all public records in California can be destroyed so easily.

California laws mandate that local governments maintain public records for at least two years.

In addition, important documents like adoption records, criminal convictions, property title records, minutes of meetings, ordinances and general court documents must be kept permanently.

California public records are mostly destroyed in line with state policies that were written to protect counties, cities and government agencies from lawsuits.

However, a side effect of these policies is that wrongdoing by public officials and government employees can be covered up as well.

One anonymous government employee, who works directly with California public records and state shredding policies, stated: “It’s the legal issue. It’s about not having records if you get sued.”

California cities are required by law to publicly disclose which public records will be shredded by putting the issue on city council agendas.

However, the general counsel for Californians Aware, said these announcement are often hidden in with many other items on the consent calendar and the vote to destroy public records is usually done without debate.

Oversight controls on the destruction of public records seem to vary widely by city and county.

One city employee said that staff do not review the contents of each public record to make sure no unauthorized records are shredded.

However, a government employee in another California city stated that she and other staff review every individual record before documents are approved by the city’s legal counsel for destroying.

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