Public Records Systems

Dear Management Doctor:

I am looking for examples of good public record systems to serve as a model. Any suggestions?

Bill Collins
Collins Planning

Dear Bill,

I see a number of approaches to the topic. Normally, city clerks are a good source for systems and there are also consultants who specialize in this field. Many communities are finally moving ahead to electronic record systems. Eventually, virtually all files will become electronic. Several approaches should be considered including:

  • The first step in any system is to have a clear records retention policy. This also needs to include how to handle email.
  • A high percent of written material is already in electronic form. The key is simply finding a way to file the material. Many of the newer computerized-permitting systems have an easy way to attach electronic documents to a property record.
  • Some communities require an electronic copy of plans, once they are completed or constructed. This is particularly true for subdivisions.
  • A few communities are now accepting electronic plan submittals. While still in the infancy, this should become common practice over the next five years.
  • While many plans may still be in hard copy, a number of communities are actively scanning plans including Louisville, Kentucky and Huntington Beach, California.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a record of cities that are doing a good job. I hope our readers will provide a good list based on their experience. For general theory try to Google filing systems. I particularly liked

One of my staff recently completed work for San Jose and below is his approach.

Keep filing,

The Management Doctor

Archival of Documents

Currently most building plans are received in paper format and plans are retained on site until construction has been completed and then are archived via microfiche.

Section 19850-19853 of the California Health and Safety Code, requires Building Divisions to maintain certain building plans during the life of a building. This section also gives limited protection to the designer of the plans by establishing a protective procedural requirement that must be followed prior to duplication of plans while allowing open access for viewing. Most documentation created or possessed by a Building Department is considered public information and different types of information have different retention requirements. Every municipality will have slightly different interpretations of the legal requirements stipulated by code, law or local ordinances or policies. Each division should have a documented policy that delineates reasonable steps to protect the preservation of documents, ensure only authorized access and have a well defined retention and deletion schedule based on type of data being retained.

Development services departments possess an enormous volume of data and the management of this data is key to cost containment. The newest term that deals with this subject is Information Lifecycle Management, (ILM). This term is used to describe the management of data from its creation through deletion based on established retention schedules. Current law is careful to not stipulate any specific required storage medium. The predominate forms of archival being used today are paper, microfilm, microfiche, or electronic. The key to determining what storage medium is appropriate is based on the following factors.

  • Volume of data to be retained and hence storage capacity needed
  • Is concurrent access to data needed or desired
  • What speed to access to the data is needed
  • How long is the retention period for the data being retained
  • Ease of generating redundant archival to protect documents in case of a disaster
  • Is automatic deletion of records desirable at the end of the retention period
  • Ease of migrating documents to newer technological formats
  • Long term costs (cost benefit analysis) of the different options available
A cost benefit analysis is not easy to accomplish because many of the benefits obtained through utilization of modern technology are externally obtained by customers, which is difficult to measure or place a cost benefit on. The basic elements to consider when performing a cost benefit analysis are the following.
  • Does system provide redundant backup of documents and associated cost of providing redundancy
  • How much space is allocated to plan and permit file storage and what is the cost of the space
  • How many staff positions are allocated to retrieving plans and permit files and what is the cost
  • How much staff time is wasted waiting for plans or permit files to be made accessible
  • What types of delays are incurred by customers waiting for plans or permit files to be made available
  • What are the estimated costs incurred by the construction industry in resolving construction problems that are related to delayed access to plans and permit files
  • How many plans or permit files are not available immediately, temporarily misplaced or lost
  • Are the plans and permit documents that are legally required to be maintained deteriorating
Jurisdictions having completed a cost benefit analysis are increasingly instituting electronic archival systems because of the small storage space required, rapid document availability, the elimination of lost or misplaced documents, the ease of document management, the ability to provide redundant protection of information, the ease of customer access to documents, and the ability to review documents over the internet.

The predominate electronic storage methods being used is based on WORM (write once, read many) technology. WORM storage is a data storage technology that allows information to be written to storage media a single time, preventing the user from accidentally or intentionally altering or erasing the data. Developed in the late 1970s and widely used since the early 1980s, optical storage technologies were the first to implement mainstream WORM storage. Offering fast access and long-term storage capabilities, optical WORM storage has historically been used for archiving data that requires a long retention period. Three technologies have emerged in this area that provide document archival compliance, Disk-based WORM, ultra dense optical (UDO) and WORM tape. The following is a comparison presented in a white paper published by HP, that is useful in determining what direction is best.

Valuation Concerns Disk UDO Tape
Data capacity multi-terabytes terabytes multi-terabytes
Concurrent access provided yes yes no
Access method random random sequential
Speed of retrieval highest seconds minutes
Retention period longest 50 years 30 years
Automatic migration of data yes no no
Automatic deletion yes no no
Cost/GB medium medium low
Environment control required no no yes

Once a cost benefit analysis is completed we believe the conclusion supports the utilization of disk-based storage for documents that are actively being processed or have a limited retention life and UDO storage for long term plan storage and redundant backup. If documents are created electronically, disk based storage allows rapid viewing and if augmented with proper viewing software allows electronic redlining capability. Either storage medium allows rapid access to documents that can be viewed by multiple users simultaneously with a web browsers and therefore allows documents to be stored in electronic format immediately and allows access over the internet.

Reader Responses

I would be pleased to communicate with Bill Collins further. I appreciate the comments/notes you outlined as important considerations for Bill. In 2004, I sponsored a conversion of building archival records, and in 2006, planning (land development) and engineering archival records into digital format thus replacing the traditional fiche records. We won a prestigious award in 2005 for the building file implementation. You and/or Bill are welcome to contact me for details.

George Siudut
City of Surrey, British Columbia, Canada

Thanks for the email on the subject of Public Records Systems. The information about archival of building plans is very helpful.

I write zoning codes as a consultant to cities and counties in California and am interested in learning more about how city clerks manage the maintenance and updating of zoning codes. These are very "organic" documents in the sense that they are constantly being amended, revised, and updated, often incrementally. Wholesale rewrites are not undertaken very often. Property owners and code enforcement officers often need to research the history of amendments to a zoning code in order to determine the standards applicable to a parcel, structure, or use when originally established and to determine the degree to which the parcels, structures, or uses may have become nonconforming.

In the past, a city maintained it’s zoning code by issuing replacement pages for its hard copy version and keeping the old pages. Now cities often contract out the online posting of their zoning codes to outside vendors (MuniCode, LexisNexis, etc.) and at the same time maintain an electronic version and a hard copy in the City Clerk's office. Sometimes the City Clerk has one version and the Planning Department has another. In addition, the online posted version is usually months out of date. We advise cities now to consider maintaining their own codes "in-house." If the city is small without a large budget, the zoning code can merely be posted as a PDF document. That way the city can maintain control over the replacement pages and can immediately update the PDF document posting. If the city has a larger budget available or has a more sophisticated records system, the zoning code can be posted in a particular area within the city's website. However, it is not clear to me how someone can track changes to the zoning code over time or what is the best process that a city should have in place for maintaining its zoning code as it evolves over time. I would be interested in learning what cities are doing to cope with this issue.

Laura Stearns
Urban Design Studio
Irvine, California

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