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Public Records & Sonoma County’s Last Century Court System

The Central Valley Business Times ran an article about how Hackers may help shape new California public records law:

Who better to help with proposed changes to online access to public records than a bunch of hackers?

A bill to improve the public’s access to government files is being proposed by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.

But before it’s introduced, it might benefit from a 24-hour open government “hack-a-thon” this weekend where software developers and others build applications to help government run smarter and more transparent operations.

It’s a nice thought, but it’s difficult to hack hard copy in  the Sonoma County Superior Court’s last century system of failing to make any sort of electronic copies of any court documents.

Paper rules. Lots and lots of paper. Stacks and stacks of paper. No indexing of anything. Just paper. SO last century … actually SO last century before last. Maybe even the century before that.

But even more retrograde than that is the Sonoma Superior Court’s expensive and wasteful policy which forbids members of the public from using their phone cameras or any other device to snap a shot of any court record. I was wading through a six-inch stack of documents one afternoon when an officious court bureaucrat lacking in manners loudly and publicly embarrassed a young woman by berating her for snapping a shot of a page with her iPhone.

The bureaucrat was a nasty waste of tax dollars. And the court rules are a waste of personnel time, citizen time and a throwback to Dickensian tyrants and quill pens.

It’s hard to imagine a public policy goal that this would support, especially since any document is a public record, can be copied, but must be done by a court employee.

Beyond that, the policy imposes an unreasonable burden on the public’s time and money and thus discourages access to public records and damages overall transparency.

An outline of the methods that must be used to access Sonoma County Court records will illustrate the waste and transparency issues that need to be addressed.

Unlike other Bay Area counties and most of California, Sonoma Superior Court does have a computerized index that is supposed to allow a search by litigants in a case. That system frequently doesn’t work, but that’s not at issue here, nor is the overall lack digital access.

However, assuming that a member of the public or the media is fortunate enough to find a file name and case number in the index , they request the paper file binder from a clerk.

The files frequently span multiple volumes, each encompassing hundreds of pages. Understandably the rules prohibit the unbinding or removal of pages or documents in each volume. The chances of lost and mis-filed documents is too much of a risk, especially since these are the original documents filed with the court.

As a result, the media or member of the public must, in many cases, use a great many paper clips to mark pages to be copied by a clerk.

Once pages are marked, the file volumes are given to a clerk to make copies.

Copying is a time-consuming process for both the county employee and the member of the public. The copies cost $1.50 per page, which may or may not be related to the staff time and equipment and paper costs involved. It is certainly wasted time for members of the public.

All of that time loss, county employee time and the financial expense are completely avoidable through the use of cameras, either in phones or small handheld units.

And because pages in a document can be easily photographed without removing pages from the binder, allowing photography also would decrease wear and tear on the original court documents and decrease to zero the human error that can result in lost or misfiled documents, always possible with the best of employees.

Significantly, allowing photography will provide county employee cost and time savings because it would eliminate all the time spent in public access to public documents.

I previously brought this to the attention to Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown. After prodding her office for a lack of response, I finally got one of those “that’s not my table” sorts of political, shoulder-shrugging, non-response.

After all, it’s only taxpapers, taxpayer money and the public’s access to public records. Nothing important worth spending your time on.