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The City of Poway passed a resolution to destroy 87 boxes of public city records that are more than two years old. The list of documents proposed for destruction at the January 23rd city-council meeting includes paperwork on ambulance receipts, HR personnel incident reports, and political campaign statements. Poway says many of the documents are duplicates, drafts, or unimportant to city business.

Each department follows common criteria for what kinds of documents can be destroyed. The rules exempt records involved in ongoing city matters, along with documents involving deaths, crimes, and property titles. The department director is also allowed to withdraw documents from destruction that are deemed of lasting administrative, legal, fiscal, historical, or research value. A detailed records retention schedule dictates the differing time periods for when each public record can be destroyed.

The January 23rd vote raises the question of whether the destruction of public records could have negative consequences for the public. When asked about Poway’s resolution, Kelly Aviles, a lawyer who specializes in the California Public Records Act for Californians Aware, said, “The main concern with public records destruction is that the city properly trains each department on which documents are allowed to be destroyed. If there isn’t proper training, then that’s when mistakes can be made and documents that should stay on record could potentially be destroyed.”

The Poway city clerk’s office says the record retention schedule was last updated in May of 2017.

“We go out to each department and provide them with training about how to handle documents and educate them about the retention policies,” explained Jasmine Pernicano, the city’s records technician.

Public record destruction has faced fierce opposition in the city of San Diego in the past. In 2014, San Diegans for Open Government, a nonprofit advocacy group led by attorney Cory Briggs, filed a lawsuit against the city’s adoption of a policy that allowed all city emails more than a year old to be deleted. The lawsuit claimed the policy had been in place for two weeks before the public was notified of the email destruction. The lawsuit was filed just before mayor Kevin Faulconer took office; he later rescinded the proposed email purge.

State law says that as long as there is a legislative vote and consent from the city attorney, public record destruction is legal after those documents have been kept for at least two years. The Poway City Council votes on records proposed for destruction on a semi-annual basis.

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