By Anne Lowe
PUBLIC INFORMATION Los Angeles County is stalling a Public Records Act request for information on county employees earning more than $250,000 per year, the Los Angeles Times reports.
County officials cite safety concerns as the reason they are delaying access to the information. Some employees have expressed personal safety and similar concerns about such disclosure, Nancy Takade, principal deputy county counsel, told the Times.
"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.??A broad 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 e-mail 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.