Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Public records audit disputed in Palo Alto

Palo Alto officials have come out swinging after the city got an F minus grade in a statewide public records audit by the non-profit, First Amendment group CalAware. CalAware sent journalists or volunteers to 214 police agencies across the state on Dec. 4 to ask for certain documents that are undisputed to be public information. In the case of Palo Alto, KGO-TV investigative producer Steven Fyffe went to the police department counter to ask for documents. The journalists did not reveal that they worked for news organizations when they made the requests because CalAware wanted to see how the government treated ordinary citizens.

The Palo Alto Daily News and Palo Alto Weekly have published articles that quote various city officials as saying the audit was unfair and flawed. "It's almost like they went into this expecting government to perform poorly, and their way of judging reflected that," Council Member Peter Drekmeier said. According to the Daily News, top city officials including the police chief and city clerk have written a report that claims:
    • Fyffe requested a daily crime log, arrest information and an officer salary schedule, which are on the city's Web site. Because they were not made available in hard copy, the city was docked 29 points.

    • The city lost two points for not keeping Form 700, which contains the police chief's economic interest, at the front desk. Johnson e-mailed the form to Fyffe 14 days after the initial request.

    • Police made certain documents available prior to Jan. 12, the day the audit scores hit newspapers.
CalAware executive director Emily Francke told the Daily News that Jan. 12 was far beyond the deadline for compliance. If the city had filed a 14-day extension, which it did not, she claims, the deadline would have been Dec. 28. And keeping crime and arrest information online isn't enough, Francke said, saying the city should have printed it out.

Still, the city is planning to make changes as a result of the audit including training employees on how to deal with public records requests and improving the tracking of those requests.

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