The years of work that went into Berkeley’s new city website are paying off for most visitors, officials say, with online services that are much easier to find and navigate.
But the new site has drawn complaints from its most dedicated users — including members of the City Council, activists and other local government watchers — who are having a far more difficult time finding documents since the old site, and its vast archive of city records, went offline.
Now Berkeley may have to spend more time and money on its website to restore access to those documents.
“From the perspective of any kind of normal, average user who is trying to pay a bill or report a pothole,” Councilmember Sophie Hahn said, “it is wildly superior to what we had before.
“But for those of us who used [the website] for research,” Hahn added during a discussion of the site at a council meeting last month, “it’s almost like the entire archive … is just gone.”
While they set some of the old site’s most popular pages to automatically redirect to their equivalent on berkeleyca.gov, the vast majority of cityofberkeley.info pages simply ceased to exist. That means the links that once led to those pages — which are littered through city documents, Berkeleyside articles and Google search results — are now broken, taking visitors only to a generic “404” error page telling them the information has moved. The problem, known as “link rot,” is a pervasive challenge for maintaining access to information online.
The old city website was hardly beloved, with its outdated systems and design stuck in the era of DSL internet. Still, it hosted a massive compendium of Berkeley’s history, including many years’ worth of meeting materials 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 posts City Council meeting agendas and minutes dating back to the start of 2021; the archive for other boards and commissions only includes this year.
The loss of records was a “shock,” Hahn said at the council’s July 26 meeting, echoing others who said they were surprised by how little information had been carried over. Councilmember Kate Harrison said she heard from Sierra Club officials who were struggling to find the text of Berkeley’s legislation banning natural gas in new buildings; Councilmember 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 to more easily access information on city government and city meetings.”
The mass culling of pages was part of the effort to make the site easier for the general public to use, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said.
“A recurrent complaint of residents was that the glut of legislative records cluttered search for the services that they needed,” Chakko wrote in an email.
The older meeting agendas, staff reports and other documents that were hosted on cityofberkeley.info haven’t been wiped from the internet altogether — they can still be found through Berkeley’s even more extensive archive, Records Online.
Chakko said that site “addresses the need to find records while also maintaining the focus of search on city services.”
But if the old cityofberkeley.info wasn’t user-friendly, Records Online is no better, with a slow search function that can be difficult for inexperienced visitors to use. Type in too broad of a search term and you’ll be buried in irrelevant documents; try to craft too specific an inquiry and you might get no results at all. Records on cityofberkeley.info, on the other hand, could be found through a Google search.
Hahn has drafted referrals that would, if approved by the full council, direct city staff to improve Records Online and provide training on how to use the site. She also wants staff to post more years’ worth of materials from the City Council and other legislative bodies on berkeleyca.gov, saying in an interview that she is “not sure” the site currently complies with the city’s Open Government Ordinance.
“Certainly the spirit of the sunshine ordinance is that materials should be easily accessed on the website,” Hahn said, “and I don’t think that Records Online meets that threshold.”
Chakko said city staff are “working on ways to improve documentation and usability” of Records Online, though he did not elaborate on 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 the National Association of Government Web Professionals has named berkeleyca.gov a finalist for an award recognizing the best websites for cities of Berkeley’s size.
Chakko declined to comment on Hahn’s referrals, because the council has not voted on them, but he said further changes to the site could require more funding. In comments to the council last month, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said staff are working to determine how much prospective changes would cost.
“We transported all commission records that we received funding to move over,” Chakko said. “If the council wants the site to host more, that would require council approval for more funding.”
Hahn said she expects a referral for staff to undertake further work on the website will come back before the City Council later this year.