County not telling pay of top staff

Lawyer cites con­cern for work­ers’ safety in re­sponse to Times’ request de­spite 2007 state court rul­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - Late Extra - Rong-Gong Lin II

Los An­ge­les County of­fi­cials are tak­ing steps to keep se­cret the names and salaries of some highly paid county em­ploy­ees, say­ing they need more time to com­ply with pub­lic records law to pro­tect work­ers who claim that dis­clo­sure could put them at risk.

The re­sponse came af­ter The Times asked for the iden­ti­ties and pay of county work­ers who earn $250,000 or more an­nu­ally, a request made in the wake of the salary scan­dal in Bell, where eight cur­rent and for­mer city of­fi­cials face cor­rup­tion charges of mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of pub­lic funds.

Nancy Takade, the county’s prin­ci­pal deputy county coun­sel, told The Times last week that the county needed ad­di­tional time be­cause many em­ploy­ees “have expressed per­sonal safety and sim­i­lar con­cerns about such dis­clo­sure.”

“As some of these con­cerns are po­ten­tially le­git­i­mate, es­pe­cially those re­lat­ing to per­sonal safety, the county de­vel­oped a process by which em­ploy­ees may request anonymity for per­sonal safety and other le­git­i­mate rea­sons,” Takade wrote. She added that the re­quested data, “with ap­pro­pri­ate redac­tion as to em­ploy­ees re­quir­ing anonymity,” would prob­a­bly be ready in early Oc­to­ber.

County of­fi­cials are sur­vey­ing all 100,000 county em­ploy­ees. The Times’ request for in­for­ma­tion cov­ers no more than a few hun­dred.

Abroad re­fusal to re­lease em­ployee salary in­for­ma­tion would be in “to­tal vi­o­la­tion” of a 2007 Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court rul­ing, said Jim Ew­ert, le­gal coun­sel for the Cal­i­for­nia News­pa­per Pub­lish­ers Assn.

He said the rul­ing was “pretty em­phatic in de­ter­min­ing that pub­lic em­ploy­ees, with very few ex­cep­tions, don’t have a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion to pri­vacy in their salary or com­pen­sa­tion in­for­ma­tion.”

The rul­ing in­volved a case in which Con­tra Costa Times re­porters sought the names, job ti­tles and salaries of all Oak­land city em­ploy­ees who earned $100,000 or more for the 2003-04 fis­cal year. Oak­land re­fused to iden­tify em­ploy­ees, even though it had done so in the past.

“Open­ness in govern­ment is es­sen­tial to the func­tion­ing of democ­racy,” Chief Jus­tice Ron­ald M. Ge­orge wrote in a ma­jor­ity opin­ion, signed by three other jus­tices. Three other jus­tices wrote opin­ions that con­curred with por­tions of the

ma­jor­ity rul­ing and dis­sented from oth­ers.

“We rec­og­nize that many in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing pub­lic em­ploy­ees, may be un­com­fort­able with the prospect of oth­ers know­ing their salary,” the rul­ing said. “Nonethe­less, in light of the strong pub­lic pol­icy sup­port­ing trans­parency in govern­ment, an in­di­vid­ual’s ex­pec­ta­tion of pri­vacy in a salary earned in pub­lic em­ploy­ment is sig­nif­i­cantly less than the pri­vacy ex­pec­ta­tion re­gard­ing in­come earned in the pri­vate sec­tor.”

Govern­ment agen­cies, both Cal­i­for­nia and fed­eral, have a long his­tory of mak­ing clear that the pub­lic has a right to know the salaries and names of govern­ment work­ers. Even be­fore the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Records Act was signed into law in 1968, the Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice in 1955 wrote that “the name of ev­ery pub­lic of­fi­cer and em­ployee, as well as the amount of his salary, is a mat­ter of pub­lic record.”

Takade, of the county coun­sel’s of­fice, said in an email

‘The name of ev­ery pub­lic of­fi­cer and em­ployee, as well as the amount of his salary, is a mat­ter of pub­lic record.’ 1955 rul­ing by the Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice

that she be­lieved that the 2007 opin­ion of the Supreme Court “does not pre­clude the county from redact­ing an em­ployee’s iden­tity and work­place if such dis­clo­sure would threaten the em­ployee’s per­sonal safety.”

Takade cited an ex­am­ple in which dis­clo­sure of a worker’s name could al­low an ex-spouse stalker to “eas­ily dis­cover the where­abouts of that em­ployee.”

The Supreme Court rul­ing ac­knowl­edged one nar­row pos­si­bil­ity in which it would be in the pub­lic in­ter­est to keep a pub­lic em­ployee’s salary con­fi­den­tial: the case of an un­der­cover po­lice of­fi­cer. But the jus­tices con­cluded in the 2007 case that Oak­land and the unions failed to pro­vide spe­cific ev­i­dence on why par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­als’ salary should be kept con­fi­den­tial.

Fur­ther­more, the rul­ing stated that po­lice of­fi­cers in gen­eral do not have a blan­ket right to keep their salaries se­cret.

“Coun­ter­bal­anc­ing any cog­niz­able in­ter­est that pub­lic em­ploy­ees may have in avoid­ing dis­clo­sure of their salaries is the strong pub­lic in­ter­est in know­ing how the govern­ment spends its money,” the rul­ing said.

“Pub­lic ac­cess makes it pos­si­ble for mem­bers of the pub­lic ‘to ex­pose cor­rup­tion, in­com­pe­tence, in­ef­fi­ciency, prej­u­dice, and fa­voritism,’ ” the rul­ing said, quot­ing from an ear­lier court opin­ion.

The rul­ing cited nu­mer­ous pub­lished ar­ti­cles in which dis­clos­ing salaries served a “sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic in­ter­est.” One ex­am­ple was how state em­ploy­ees were be­ing re­clas­si­fied as “safety work­ers” to get higher pen­sion ben­e­fits. An­other was how a Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia ex­ec­u­tive won a pay raise even as the uni­ver­sity or­dered tu­ition in­creases and worker lay­offs.

Ew­ert, of the news­pa­pers as­so­ci­a­tion, said the re­cent rev­e­la­tions of highly paid of­fi­cials in Bell, a story un­cov­ered by The Times, shows the im­por­tance of dis­clos­ing tax­payer-funded salaries.

“Pub­lic pay is the pub­lic’s busi­ness,” Ew­ert said. “With­out the abil­ity of the pub­lic to learn how much pub­lic em­ploy­ees are mak­ing, there is ab­so­lutely no way that they can over­see what govern­ment of­fi­cials are do­ing on their be­half.”

“The Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court has al­ready de­cided this is­sue,” said Karl Olson, a me­dia at­tor­ney who ar­gued for the Con­tra Costa Times in the 2007 Supreme Court case. “For L.A. County to be tak­ing this po­si­tion is rather sur­pris­ing and seems to re­flect al­most a will­ful ig­no­rance of the law.”

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