Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Public Employee Salaries Subject to Disclosure, Court Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Highly paid public employees must be identified by name and salary under the California Public Records Act, absent unusual circumstances in an individual case, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Three, rejecting arguments that disclosure of the information would invade employee privacy, Monday denied a petition by public employee unions to block disclosure by the City of Oakland of the names, titles, and gross salaries of all employees who earned at least $100,000 in the 2003-2004 fiscal year.
“Once they have received their salaries, public employees enjoy the same rights of financial privacy as other citizens,” Justice Joanne Parrilli wrote for Div. Three. “Payment of public employee salaries, however, is a public expense, and the amounts and recipients of that expense are public records. The people have the right to examine those records to monitor the conduct of public business....”
Newspaper Seeks Information
The company that publishes the Contra Costa Times sought the information, which the city would not disclose without a court order. Oakland officials cited the “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” legally protected records, “catch-all” public interest, and peace officer personnel records exemptions from the CPRA.
The city also cited the privacy clause of the California Constitution and a prior Court of Appeal decision holding that public employees had a right not to be identified by name or title with respect to disclosure of compensation information, at least for purposes of a preliminary injunction motion under the CPRA.
Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc. sought disclosure by filing a writ petition in Superior Court, citing both the CPRA and the Oakland “Sunshine Ordinance.” It argued the information was “essential to CCN’s mission of informing the public about the salaries and qualifications of City employees, issues pertaining to excessive overtime, potential favoritism and nepotism, and issues about whether the City is properly spending tax dollars in an era of lean budgets.”
Alameda Superior Court Judge Steven Brick allowed unions representing city engineers and police officers to intervene. The unions argued that past newspaper coverage had insinuated that employees were “greedy, undeserving, and overpaid” and that the disclosures sought were “offensive and objectionable.”
Brick, however, ruled that the newspaper was entitled to disclosure. He cited the city’s history of making such information available, held that the public interest in disclosure outweighed any privacy interests, and found the “personnel records” exemption inapplicable to the information sought.
The information was subsequently released, after the Court of Appeal denied a stay of Brick’s order. The court did not treat the case as moot, however, citing the likelihood that the issue will come up again.
On appeal, the unions argued that the information should only be released on a case-by-case basis. The city did not join the appeal.
Parrilli, writing Monday for the Court of Appeal, said the weight of authority, both in California and other states, as well as federal authority, supports disclosure of large public salaries.
“[N]either Congress, the California Legislature, nor the Oakland City Council has recognized any social nom making public employee salary data a private matter.”
To the contrary, Parrilli noted, California voters last November approved Proposition 59, amending the state Constitution to declare that the “right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business” should be construed broadly and that any restriction on access should be construed narrowly.
While Proposition 59 explicitly recognizes privacy rights and the confidentiality of law enforcement records, the justice wrote, the measure’s adoption “favors increased transparency in the conduct of government business.”
Parrilli dismissed claims that disclosure would subject employees to increased risk of identity theft and the specter of unwanted telephone calls from salespeople. There was no showing that disclosures in previous years had caused any problems, and fears of unwanted telephone calls could be remedied under the state and federal “Do Not Call” rules. the justice said.
The First District’s Div. One, Parrilli went on to conclude, wrongly decided Teamsters Local 856 v. Priceless, LLC (2003) 112 Cal.App.4th 1500, cited by the unions. “We believe our colleagues in Division One gave insufficient consideration to the burden placed on parties resisting disclosure under the CPRA, and to the limited nature of the intrusion into personal finances occasioned by the release of gross salary data for named public employees.”
The case is International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21, AFL-CIO v. Superior Court (Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc.), 05 S.O.S. 1900.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company