Government Websites Purging Embarrassing Facts

San Diego County's Civil Service Commission has abandoned its practice of posting its agendas, minutes and audio files on its website.  The reason: To provide some privacy to county employees who have appeared before the commission on a rules violation or to pursue a discrimination complaint. And as San Diego City Beat reports, the Fair Political Practices Commission's new chair has stripped its website of information on opened  investigations, solicitous for politicians' and other political operatives' reputations.

As more and more public agencies embrace the concept of open government every day, one local agency has just taken a major step backward in terms of the public's ability to access its records.

Two weeks ago, San Diego County's Civil Service Commission was the model of transparency in the digital age; through the county's website you could access all the commission's minutes, agendas and audio files. But last week, without notice or explanation, the commission scrubbed those public records from its website and left no instructions on how to access them. 

The commission is charged with hearing and investigating personnel issues. When a county employee believes he or she has been wrongly fired or disciplined or is a  victim of discrimination, they can appeal to the commission. Its meeting and hearings are open to the public, and so are its records (except in cases involving law-enforcement officers; those hearings are closed and the officer's names are redacted from records). For the public, this is one of the few avenues for investigating details of alleged wrongdoing by county employees.

Contacted by CityBeat, the commission's executive officer, Patt Zamary, explained that she made the decision in order to protect the privacy of employees, though the records are still available to members of the public who file formal records requests.

"When we put it on the website, we thought we were keeping in step with the times, and we didn’t realize until we got complaints from people that had been before the commission that, having their name on the website, it's like they couldn’t get rid of it," Zamary says. "When they’d Google their names, they would see it. They may have done something wrong that brought them before the commission or filed a discrimination complaint, but those records stayed on the website forever, and they really felt we had gone well beyond transparency into really compromising their privacy. Since we had grappled with that several times, I made the decision to remove those from the website since we’re not required to do that."

The commission isn't the only agency of late to scrub public records from the Internet in the name of privacy. Recently, the California Fair Political Practices Commission decided to remove complaints against candidates, political committees and elected officials from its website in order to shield the accused until formal investigations were concluded. The L.A. Times  called the move "shortsighted" and "contrary to the agency's primary mission of promoting accountability." Like the Civil Service Commission, the FPPC's documents are still available through formal requests.

"If someone emails us, we'll email them back," Zamary says. "We're not going to make this a laborious process."

At the same time, the decision adds multiple steps to a process that previously could be completed online without assistance. That's not to mention cost: CityBeat has requested a digital copy of everything, including documents and audio files. Zamary says that's doable, but it will cost us $5 per CD-ROM and the files will fill up at least two or three. It will be available within in the next couple of days.

In the privacy-rights world, this is called "practical obscurity," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. By keeping public records in offline form, fewer people see them, and that's not a bad thing, he says. Once an agency posts personal information online, anyone can find through a simple search. This also allows companies to use the data to compile profiles of individuals for commercial purposes.

"Some government agencies will post just about everything that’s public on the Internet, while others do not do so," Stephens says. "Our interest is in protecting privacy, so we prefer not to see any sort of information that may be an invasion of an individual’s privacy posted online."

Through CalAware, California's top freedom-of-information advocacy organization, attorney Marco Gonzalez provides free assistance to members of the public in open-records issues. He strongly disagrees with the commission's decision.

"This is public taxpayer dollars being spent to do government functions," he says. "It’s all public record, so there’s no reason to hide it."

Gonzalez' law firm, Coast Law Group, has represented county employees in front of the Civil Service Commission, and he says that removing the files from the 'net has the potential to hurt his clients more than it helps.

"If I am representing someone before a commission like this and I have access to prior decisions, I am better prepared to represent my clients for whatever circumstances are coming up," he says. "It’s not too much to ask that otherwise public documents be available without going through the rigmarole of a public-records request."

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