Anaheim planning officials have warned department employees that they could be disciplined if they did not purge from their computers any files that reflect badly on staff, officials and developers.
The warnings, which arrived in emails last week, came shortly after the online publication Voice of OC filed a Public Records Act request for communications between council members and the planning department.
The requests from the planning department to delete the files has raised concerns that employees are being asked to break the law or participate in a coverup.
The Anaheim city attorney's office, which investigated whether the request was illegal, said Thursday that it did not violate state law.
But Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn., said the emails "instruct employees to destroy certain public records and discusses the likelihood that certain public records could be embarrassing to public officials."
In an email dated Dec. 27, Sandra Sagert, who heads the city's code enforcement program, wrote that "a not so nice comment about a popular property owner" appeared in an email that was turned over in a public records request.
"As you can imagine," the email read, "the city manager was not happy. There will be disciplinary action for anyone violating this administrative regulation."
Sagert said staff members are not allowed "to archive emails for any purpose" and that starting next week, "I.T. will be running a program looking for archived email documents and notifying department heads of any items they find."
The next day, Hannah Jones, an administrative analyst in the planning department, sent employees an email noting the city has been getting public records requests almost daily and that when "old or unnecessary documents turn up," they can "very easy (sic) portray the actions of city staff, applicants, contractors and decision makers out of context and damage our credibility."
Jones warned that supervisors would be periodically checking up on employees and those who failed to delete old messages and files would face disciplinary action.
Ruth Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the city, said Jones was a mid-level employee and was uncertain why she had sent out the memo. Sagert and Jones declined to comment to The Times.
Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an open government group, said the emails appeared to prod employees to break the law. He said the state Government Code requires cities to retain records for at least two years and that some must be retained indefinitely.
He said the emails suggest that "word has come out from on high that department heads and/or middle managers make sure their units are aware of this purging policy, this non-retention policy."
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait on Thursday called the emails "confusing and misleading."
"Unfortunately, these emails within the Planning Department and the manner in which they were articulated were a mistake," the mayor said. "We are taking corrective action to assure this does not happen again."
The Jones memo was first revealed by Voice of OC, a small nonprofit news website that was launched 20 months ago. The website has used the Public Records Act extensively, including for stories that have shown that a councilwoman pressured city staff to grant her company a permit to hold a barbecue and to expose conflicts of interest in the city's building department.
Voice of OC staff writer Adam Elmahrek said he filed a public records request asking for all communications between City Council members and the planning department just a few hours before Sagert wrote her memo.
Orange County Assistant Dist. Atty. Michael Lubinski, head of the special prosecutions unit, said the employees union forwarded him Jones' email.
"Nothing popped out as being clearly criminal by that memo," he said. "But that doesn't mean there wasn't intent to destroy documents that shouldn't be destroyed."