It's the Information Age -- so why do our public officials hoard data?
EDITOR'S NOTES Way back in the early 1980s, when I had a lot more hair and it wasn't so grey, I got a tip that the San Francisco school district had a serious problem with asbestos contamination. My colleague Jim Balderston and I checked it out, and yes indeed — the toxic stuff was in so many classrooms that thousands of students were at risk.
After we broke that news, and the district started scrambling to clean up the mess, we asked ourselves: How were things allowed to get to that point? Who screwed up? Who let it happen?
We knew there was a paper trail, and we were all set to put together a detailed request under the Public Records Act, which would have taken months to process. But first we met with the recently hired school superintendent, Ray Cortines, and asked him how much he knew about the past few years of school maintenance.
"Very little," he said. "But I know where you can find out."
He took us to a huge room, filled with maybe 50 filing cabinets. "All of the building history and maintenance records are in here," he said. "If you need to use the copy machine, just let me know."
And that was that. No scrutiny from a district lawyer, no redactions, no documents withheld for shadowy reasons ... just two reporters with full access to public records. He literally told us to turn out the lights whenever we were done.
We got some amazing stories. I'd like to think we hastened a lagging asbestos abatement program and revealed who was at fault .. but nothing bad happened. I guarantee that the district could have found a way, maybe even an arguably legal way, to keep us from seeing half the records we reviewed — but as Cortines saw it, what would have been the point?
And guess what? It was 1987. There wasn't any fancy software program or nifty, expensive app. Just an open door.
That's how a public agency should think about public records.
Now its 2013, and San Francisco is the epicenter of the Information Revolution. And as we note in this issue, it's harder than ever to get the folks at City Hall — who love the tech world and all it offers — to turn over basic information about how they're running the city.
That's about as crazy as it gets.