Santa Clara not complying with records law, Civil Grand Jury report says

A civil grand jury this week released a scathing report on Santa Clara’s alleged failure to comply with the state’s public records law — a report city officials are disputing.

The law, known as the California Public Records Act, dates back to 1968 and allows people to look at and receive documents created and kept by government agencies, with only a few narrowly defined exceptions. It outlines strict requirements for how long a government agency has to respond to requests and deliver documents.

In an 18-page report released Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury said what started out as an investigation into contracting procedures at the city and the Santa Clara Stadium Authority turned into a review of the city’s compliance with the state law when the grand jury struggled to get information it had requested. The report is called City of Santa Clara: Public Records Access, The Paper Chase.

“After encountering numerous obstacles, including inadequate responses from the City to its document requests and a lack of cooperation in scheduling Grand Jury interviews, the Grand Jury turned the focus of its investigation to the City’s handling of requests under the CPRA,” the report said.

The investigative judicial body concluded that Santa Clara is falling short of complying with the public records law, calling the municipality’s process “a time-consuming and difficult chore,” and noting that response times for such documents in the first quarter of 2019 had more than doubled from 2018.

“The City of Santa Clara (City) is in the midst of Silicon Valley with all of the area’s technical acumen and resources available,” the report states. “However, the 2018-19 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury (Grand Jury) found the City’s recordkeeping to be disorganized and its staffing levels inadequate to process CPRA requests in compliance with the requirements of the law.”

But Santa Clara city officials pushed back on the findings in a statement to San José Spotlight on Wednesday, acknowledging the challenges of keeping up with the requests while insisting the city isn’t violating state law.

“The volume of CPRA requests, many of which are complex, continue to draw from our limited resources as a city and yet, the city continues to be transparent, responsive and compliant with CPRA requests,” the city’s statement said.

The grand jury’s report outlines months of attempts, between Dec. 2018 and April 2019, to get documents from the city related to various invoices and contracts. During that time, the grand jury received records that were incomplete, partial or missing information, the report said.

In interviews and visits to review documents at City Hall, the grand jury said it learned that only one person was trained on the law, and there is no written citywide process for responding to such requests.

But Santa Clara officials said that’s not true. The city has a policy that’s currently “being modernized to consider technology staffing and resources changes,” they said, adding that “multiple” staff members are trained to respond to such records requests.

Santa Clara officials said Wednesday that the grand jury’s report is “focused on one of the city’s gap areas.” Officials have known about that gap since Jan. 2018, shortly after hiring City Manager Deanna Santana, who has acknowledged the need to improve the city’s recordkeeping, according to the city.

In response to that need, the city hired a public records manager in recent months, who has been tasked with centralizing the city’s records.

The grand jury noted Santa Clara had purchased records management systems 18 months ago and urged the city to have those system up and running by the end of the year. But city officials said the current system is working according to the law and pushed back on that timeline.

“The Civil Grand Jury partially acknowledges the steps the city has taken to improves [sic] its process, but set an unrealistic time frame for executive leadership who have been in place for less than two years, and a public records manager who has been in place for less than six months, to develop and implement systems that are complex and far-reaching throughout the city administrative infrastructure,” the city’s statement said.

Representatives for the grand jury did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Santa Clara staff members are set to present a formal response to the report in late August or early September. In the meantime, city officials said community engagement and transparency is one of the City Council’s goals.

“The city has reported and established new practices that are advancing modern practices for records management,” Santa Clara’s statement said. “Looking ahead the city remains committed to improving public record management processes and enhancing transparency.”

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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