Multimedia Zilch

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

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.” [page]

And the politics that decides where the money goes.

New computer systems are expensive; depending on what they're used for, they can also be politically charged.

Consider the Ethics Commission Web page. It is the only one on the city's site to post retrievable information — namely, campaign finance reports.

The site lists campaign contributions to political committees and individual politicians. It also contains separate lobbyist reports that detail who and how much the lobbyists paid and were paid. There are also political consultant reports that show who hired whom.

All this information is on file, on paper, in the Ethics Commission office, and is easy to find in organized, self-service file cabinets. While the Web postings offer the convenience of at-home access, the online advantages stop there. Even though by far the most advanced of the city's Internet offerings, the Ethics Commission site lacks a search engine and, therefore, cannot provide instant cross-referencing. With the politicians and lobbyists filing separate reports, the only way to match and sort donation lists or other data is to print out corresponding documents, and read them side by side.

The Ethics Commission requested a $50,000 upgrade from City Hall in January to fix the cross-referencing problem. The improvements would also have the politicians and lobbyists file their reports directly online. Uniform standards would automatically audit the reports, noting which were legally insufficient and obviously inaccurate. Now, the reports are submitted on paper, forcing Ethics Commission staff to first crunch the numbers for accuracy and then manually enter the data into the computer.

Mayor Brown initially denied the $50,000 upgrade request, and then later offered $10,000. The Board of Supervisors debated allocating the remaining $40,000 request in July, but voted against the funding, 6-4.

In a year when the city had a revenue surplus of $102 million, open government activists such as Common Cause say there is more to this story than the city trying to save $40,000.

“The politicians simply don't want the search engine. They don't want people to see what they're up to in a comprehensive way,” says Charles Marsteller, co-coordinator for San Francisco Common Cause. “They don't want you to be able to find out how much money is in politics from the comfort of your home, without having to wade through a mountain of files. They want you to dig.”

One of the most arduous digs for information that should be easily and routinely available takes place daily at the Recorder's Office. There, finding information on deeds, liens, and probate documents involves mastering not only the command of public computer terminals, but the art of feeding reels onto microfilm machines.

To retrieve a recorder's document, you must: first use one of four computers to call up a deed's reel and image number, then in a row of file cabinets locate a roll of microfilm that contains the image you need. Scroll through any of the nine microfilm machines (three of which sported “out of order” signs last week) to find and view the document. Finally, go to the clerk's counter to request a copy of the image.

Greg Diaz, who helps oversee the Recorder's Office, wants to overhaul that outdated process but admits change can be “politically sensitive.” In 1994, Diaz was appointed county clerk and recorder, but since his office was merged with the assessor last year, he has taken on the role of “chief assistant.”

“I had a vision of what I wanted, but after the merger I lost some control over what's going on,” Diaz says.

But if finding information in the Recorder's Office is time-consuming — and it is — the recorder's computer system seems positively cutting-edge, when compared to the public computers in the Assessor's Office, just a few floors away in the City Hall annex on Stevenson Street.

Though neither system is very advanced, using the color-coded keys and easy instructions in the Recorder's Office (“press the green key”) is a breeze next to the head-scratching, pre-Windows-era commands taped next to the assessor computers.

The disparity between public computers in city offices and the efforts to update them could be described as bureaucratic growing pains: Some officials are more open to the changes than others, Diaz says.

“When I was recorder, I tried to make every effort to implement new technology and make our records easily accessible. It was important to me,” Diaz says.

Diaz's vision includes a “one-stop shop” where users can research, view, and print a document from the same computer screen. And the groundwork is being laid to get rid of the microfilm machines altogether. Since May, the Recorder's Office has been using a dual archival system where new documents are not only traditionally filmed, but are being scanned for future computer use.

Though a start, such efforts do not account for decades of uncomputerized records, and do not guarantee even recent documents will be computer-accessible any time soon.

The Association of Bay Area Governments hosts Web sites for 16 regional cities. Dan Stone, the group's Web services manager, says posting public documents online is a great idea, but takes significant funding. Despite San Francisco's recent fiscal boom, its Web site has remained “pretty static,” Stone says.

The city's computer managers agree the situation is in need of an overhaul. So does a scathing 1996 civil grand jury investigation that concludes the information technology efforts of San Francisco government are “an invitation to mediocrity, at best.”

“For decades,” the grand jury reported, “information technology has not received high priority attention in the City and County. Cumbersome decision-making processes and lack of vision … have kept the City and County from implementing technological solutions which could save millions of public dollars, substantially increase levels of service, and open access to City Hall.” [page]

In neighboring San Carlos, where Internet information works, Moura says online success requires a citywide commitment.

“For this stuff to really take, you need a champion on both the elected and staff sides to get it moving together,” Moura says. At the very least, it's clear San Francisco could use a few more champions on its digital team.

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