Guidelines for the Development of Local Government Records Legislation

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Guidelines for the Development of Local Government Records Legislation This article outlines the key components necessary for the development of general and comprehensive local government records legislation. These components may be used to aid in constructing new local comprehensive records laws or to evaluate existing statutes.

Our rights as established in local property and tax records may well be in danger as a result of improper storage and unlawful destruction. Local governmental entities have, for the most part, failed to implement standard records management practices to protect records that they are mandated by law to create and/or retain. A portion of the blame for this failure must be placed on state legislatures which have not enacted the statutes necessary to encourage local governments to manage and protect their records.

Although there has been progressive improvement in the development of state records and archives programs, the same cannot be said about management programs for local government records. State records programs have been established due to public awareness and support.(1) However, the systematic management and retention of local records has not been a priority. For the most part, the comprehensive local records programs that do exist are the ad hoc result of local governments taking responsibility for their records; there has been little coordinated development of local government records programs within the states.

The void of local records programs was addressed in Documenting America: Addressing the Condition of Historical Records in the States, a survey project covering 27 states conducted by the State Historical Records Assessment and Reporting Projects in 1982.(2) Richard Cox, reporting on local government records programs, identified three causes for the failure of local records programs to develop. Two reasons were the lack of trained local records specialists and the lack of strong leadership from the state records agencies.(3) However, as Cox pointed out, "(T)he fundamental source of poor local government records programs ... is the equally poor, or even nonexistent, legislation relating to local government records."(4)

A number of states including New York have recognized the problems associated with inadequate legislation and have taken the first steps to improve the management of local government records. In its 1987 report, The Quiet Revolution, the New York Government Records Advisory Council stated, "Citizens have a right to expect that the records of their local government are well managed."(5) A number of other states have taken some legislative action to better safeguard the rights and expectations of taxpayers. Many more, however, have not. Too many state and local governments have failed to allocate the administrative and financial resources necessary to provide for effective management of local government records.

Rather than attempt a state-by-state review of local records legislation, this article will outline the key components necessary for the development of general and comprehensive local government records legislation. These components or criteria may be used to evaluate existing statutes or to aid in constructing new local comprehensive records laws.

DEFINITIONS

A number of terms must be clearly defined in local records management legislation. The terms to be defined should include at least the following:

State Records Agency or Authority --The agency and/or division of state government charged with responsibility for implementing and overseeing the records management statute for local government records. This may also include more specific details such as designating directly the state librarian, state archivist, state records administrator, secretary of state, or the offices directly responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the provisions of the statute.

Local Government--Any county, municipality, public school district, taxing authority, or any other special purpose district or authority, including all offices, departments, divisions, programs, boards, commissions, or bureaus of these governments; and including all courts or other political subdivisions constituted on a local basis. …