Planning a government project in the face of overwhelming opposition—say Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War or the county's plan to build a commercial airport at El Toro—requires the dissemination of lies and the destruction of truth. Still, it's a little surprising that the county has apparently okayed the regular destruction of vitally important interoffice emails regarding its unpopular El Toro plan.
The Weekly first became aware of the electronic shredding campaign shortly after our Aug. 17 request for "any and all memoranda and e-mails" generated by El Toro boss Gary Simon. Two weeks later, Simon wrote back to say that the memoranda—anything on paper—would be forthcoming. But the e-mail? That was another story.
"The e-mail requested for Jan. 12, 2001 to May 1, 2001 were deleted long prior to receiving your Public Records Act request of Aug. 17, 2001," wrote Simon in an Aug. 31 letter.
"As a habit, I delete my e-mails almost on a daily basis," Simon told the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 17.
None of the supes commented on Simon's astonishing and very public admission that he routinely destroyed public records. They ought to have been outraged. While Section 6254 of the California Government Code allows agencies to hold back any records "not retained by the public agency in the ordinary course of business," it doesn't allow the wholesale destruction of whole classifications of public records. In fact, the code requires "that the public interest in withholding those records clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure." Translation: any agency trying to keep e-mail from the public better have a damn good reason.
The reason for such a policy is made clear in another part of the state code: "[A]ccess to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state." Simon's reason for his frequent deletions is that "the network computer system at the county has limited storage space, and all county staff have been asked to keep e-mail storage to a reasonable amount."
Nonetheless, Simon's habit of killing all his interoffice e-mail communications appears to be unique within county government. For example, when the Weekly requested to see various e-mail correspondence from the Orange County Public Facilities and Resources Department, we received dozens of e-mail messages, one of which, reprinted on paper, also included hand-written notes in the margins.
With more and more government communication occurring electronically, e-mail has become the prize public record. Getting it requires the California Public Records Act, which allows public access to the vast majority of documents generated by state and local agencies. Public Records Act requests referring to El Toro have repeatedly unearthed information county officials preferred to keep secret: early studies that prove, contrary to official statements, the county will have to rip out and rebuild El Toro's runways at great cost; minutes of meetings that showed county officials vainly trying to rush federal officials into early approval of the El Toro plan; documents that reveal FAA engineers are unhappy with the county's proposed flight paths around El Toro.
We'll never know how much information vital to the public's understanding of El Toro is lost every day when Simon casually hits his computer's delete key:
• The inside story behind why Simon selected Amies Communication over more experienced public relations firms?
• His office's uninhibited review of the Federal Aviation Administration's finding that El Toro would be incredibly inefficient?
• Simon's take on the embarrassing delays that plagued the Board of Supervisors as it tried to certify the El Toro Environmental Impact Report?
• Simon's knowledge of the now-infamous energy billing error that will cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost lease revenue?
Perhaps all of that was locked away in Simon's computer, perhaps even details of scandals not yet known.
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