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Multimedia Zilch 

The computer revolution still hasn't come to San Francisco government

Wednesday, Sep 23 1998
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On the second floor of the Hall of Justice, a palpable sense of frustration wanders the room where citizens look up records from the municipal criminal court. Peering through little pigeonholes cut in nearly ceiling-high frosted windows, impatient document-seekers stand at a counter and call for the attention of a clerk -- any clerk -- on the other side. "We're busy," one yells from her seat at a desk outside the public's line of vision. "Look in the books."

Tucked in a corner outside the translucent barrier, stacks of 4-inch-thick binders spill out of a lopsided bookshelf. Each spine is labeled by year in Magic Marker. The printouts inside the binders have faint phone-book-size type and are dogeared and in disarray, with some of the pages torn or missing.

"Please return all indexes to their proper places (this will determine future availability)" admonishes a sign taped above the loose pages that have collected on a nearby table and the floor.

In the city of San Francisco, home to Multimedia Gulch and intimate neighbor of Silicon Valley, this is how citizens look up public records relating to criminal charges: They plow through book after book, scanning hundreds of pages and thousands of lines with the naked eye, hoping to find a name, which will correspond to a case number that can be given to a clerk, who will then retrieve a related document within a promised two or three days.

At least that's how the sign says things will work.
The lawyers, journalists, corporate researchers, landlords, and the like who rely on municipal court information for their work have no computer database to speed searches -- even though such databases are common in smaller cities, like Alameda, where computer screens display entire legal documents. The situation is more confusing for the citizen on a first-time visit. And the municipal criminal court, which handles misdemeanor charges, isn't even the most backward of the city's public record archives.

One floor up, at the superior criminal court, where the felony court records are housed, some of the case indexes are not only uncomputerized -- they come in the form of handwritten ledgers.

"I always said an easy way to get rid of your criminal record was to bring in a pencil and an eraser," says San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura, who used to work in San Francisco's court offices in the 1970s. "We used to have the problem of people tearing out pages. I'm surprised and not surprised things are still the same."

San Carlos has been online since early 1994, and its Web site posts everything from building permits to video of the mayor's speeches. When a survey showed that more than 70 percent of the kids in San Carlos schools have computers at home, the city recognized the potential demand for online information.

"There's an expectation that because a city is in or near Silicon Valley, it should be active on the Internet," says Moura.

But the city widely known as the cradle of the information age has a government that is in the virtual dark ages. San Francisco provides limited or no computer access to many routine public records, and the computer systems that are available to the public are often so outdated as to be cyberdinosaurs. And those public computers are usually just extensions of the aged systems that the city's own employees must use.

Rod Loucks, deputy director for application development at the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, which maintains many of the city's computer systems, admits that San Francisco isn't exactly at the cutting edge of the digital revolution. "We're hoping to get to the point-and-click era," he says. "Right now it's typical old, green screens, and there is clearly a need to be more user-friendly."

Books and ledgers are not the standard in every city office. The civil courts do have public computers (seven) and so does the county assessor (two), but they run on a decade-old system that requires the user to manually input cumbersome commands that are posted on signs beside the terminals. Miss one forward slash, or a space in a long line of type, and you have to start the search over.

In fact, Loucks says, the absence of public computers at the criminal courts may actually be a mercy. "If you think the [archaic command] inputs at the Assessor's Office are cryptic, that's nothing compared to the court management system," he says.

The city has made some forays into the modern computer era; three years ago, it posted its own Web site, and since then, the number of hits per month has burgeoned from 6,000 to nearly half a million. Individual users currently number about 145,000 a month.

The site does a good job of breaking down the hierarchy of the city government's structure with flow charts and offering nice explanations of what each department does. But it is far from interactive. Click on the heading "How to Contact Us" and you get not Internet links, but a list of phone numbers identical to those provided in the telephone book's blue pages.

Loucks says the Assessor's Office is "seriously considering" putting records online, and the trial courts page on the city's Web site, currently labeled "under construction," promises new information such as daily docket updates. Loucks says it's all part of a program, still in the planning phase, code-named "City Access."

These grand plans are a stark contrast to current reality, which involves an assessor's computer that's never been introduced to Windows, and municipal courts that make people plow through handwritten indexes. But Loucks says the goal of City Access is a "virtual City Hall" where citizens can not only download documents from home, but also do business with the city by paying taxes and the water bill online, or even watch live video of supervisor meetings.

"It can't happen overnight and may take us awhile to get there," he says. "The other side of the coin is money."

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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