The city of Los Angeles has agreed it must retain city records for at least two years as part of a settlement agreement reached today with the First Amendment Coalition–a victory for transparency and government accountability in the nation’s second-largest city, and an assurance that the public will have the access to city records to which it is entitled under California law.
Under the settlement terms, the city agreed to amend its “records disposition schedules”–rules dictating how long records must be preserved–to specify that city records must be retained for a period of at least two years. The city’s attorneys had previously taken the position in FAC’s lawsuit against the city that California law does not impose a “mandatory duty” on government agencies to retain records for any specific period of time.
“The people’s right of access to public records is meaningless if the government destroys those records before the public can see them,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “This settlement ensures that public records in the city of Los Angeles will be retained for a reasonable period of time so that the public can see them.”
FAC’s lawsuit, filed on August 25, 2016, focused on documents that went missing when a termed-out council member, Tom LaBonge, left office in 2015. Thousands of documents about city business—public records under California law—had been boxed up, marked for destruction, and removed from LaBonge’s council office, according to news accounts at the time.
FAC filed a request under the California Public Records Act for LaBonge’s memos, communications and other records relating to city business in which LaBonge was involved during the final two years of his tenure. These included matters relating to the LA Department of Water & Power, the California Film Commission, and a controversial housing development in Sherman Oaks. FAC’s request was denied on the basis that a search found no responsive records.
Today’s settlement agreement also provides that Los Angeles will pay $20,000 in FAC’s attorneys fees, and further provides that the city may destroy records that are less than two years old only where a specific provision of California law permits it.
“The premature destruction of records by government agencies is a large and growing problem in California,” Snyder said. “With this settlement, it is clear that, in Los Angeles at least, public records will not be destroyed before their time.”
FAC’s lawyer in the case is Kelly Aviles of Los Angeles.