Years of work on the new City of Berkeley website is paying off for most visitors, officials say, with online services much easier to find and navigate.
But the new site has drawn complaints from its most dedicated users – including city council members, activists and other local government watchers – who are finding it much harder to find documents since the old site and its vast archive of municipal records, went offline.
Now, Berkeley may have to spend more time and money on its website to restore access to these documents.
“From the perspective of any kind of normal, average user trying to pay a bill or report a pothole,” council member Sophie Hahn said, “this is way above what we had before.
“But for those of us who have used [the website] for research,” Hahn added in a discussion on the site at a council meeting last month, “it’s almost as if the entire archive … is gone.
City staff consolidated Berkeley’s website from more than 15,000 pages on the old site, cityofberkeley.info, to about 500 on the new one, berkeleyca.gov, which went live last spring.
While they configured some of the most popular pages from the old site to automatically redirect to their equivalent on berkeleyca.gov, the vast majority of cityofberkeley.info pages simply ceased to exist. This means that the links that once led to these pages – which dotted city documents, Berkeleyside articles and Google search results – are now broken, taking visitors only to a generic “404” error page their indicating that the information has been moved. The problem, known as “link rot,” is a pervasive challenge to maintaining access to information online.
The old town website was not well liked, with its outdated systems and design stuck in the age of DSL internet. Yet it housed a massive compendium of Berkeley’s history, including many years of meeting documents for the City Council and other Berkeley boards and commissions, as well as key planning documents and staff reports. .
The new site, on the other hand, only publishes agendas and minutes of city council meetings from early 2021; records of other councils and commissions include only this year.
The loss of records came as a “shock,” Hahn said at the July 26 council meeting, echoing others who said they were surprised at how little information had come through. Council member Kate Harrison said she heard from Sierra Club officials who had trouble finding the text of Berkeley’s legislation banning natural gas in new buildings; Council member Susan Wengraf reported she had trouble finding Berkeley’s wildfire evacuation map (city officials say they restored access to the document soon after the launch) .
Mayor Jesse Arreguín said that in a “very engaged community” like Berkeley, “people want easier access to information about city government and town meetings.”
The massive removal of pages was part of efforts to make the site easier to use for the general public, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said.
“A recurring complaint from residents was that the overabundance of legislative documents cluttered finding the services they needed,” Chakko wrote in an email.
Past meeting agendas, staff reports and other documents hosted on cityofberkeley.info have not been completely wiped from the internet – they can still be found in Berkeley’s even more comprehensive archive, Records Online.
Chakko said the site “addresses the need to find records while maintaining a search focus on city services.”
But if the old cityofberkeley.info wasn’t user-friendly, Records Online is no better, with a slow search feature that can be difficult for inexperienced visitors to use. Type in a search term that’s too broad and you’ll be buried in irrelevant documents; try making a request that is too specific and you might not get any results. Records on cityofberkeley.info, on the other hand, can be found via a Google search.
Hahn drafted references that, if approved by the full council, would direct city staff to improve Records Online and provide training on using the site. She also wants staff to post more years of documents from city council and other legislative bodies on berkeleyca.gov, saying in an interview that she’s “not sure” the site is currently compliant. city open government ordinance.
“Certainly the spirit of the Sun Ordinance is that records should be easily accessible on the website,” Hahn said, “and I don’t think Records Online meets that threshold.”
Chakko said city staff are “working on ways to improve the documentation and usability” of Records Online, though he didn’t specify what that would entail.
He defended the website as “a revolution in terms of what we offer our community” that has made it easier for residents to access information and services, and noted that the National Association of Government Web Professionals named berkeleyca.gov finalist for an award recognizing the best websites for cities the size of Berkeley.
Chakko declined to comment on Hahn’s credentials because the board did not vote on them, but he said other changes to the site may require more funding. In comments to council last month, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said staff were working to determine the cost of potential changes.
“We transported all the commission files for which we received funds to move,” Chakko said. “If the board wants the site to host more, that would require board approval for more funding.”
Hahn said she expects a recommendation for staff to undertake further work on the website to come back to city council later this year.