Palo Alto won’t name names on salary list

By Dan Stober
Mercury News

The city of Palo Alto released lists Wednesday showing how much each of its employees earned in the last three years, but, unlike a similar list it handed out last year, this one omitted most workers’ names.

It’s not because the city was unwilling. No one asked for them.

Palo Alto Daily News publisher Dave Price, who made the request, initially did request the names, along with job titles and pay, but he scaled back the request after the city’s firefighter union threatened to sue him for invasion of privacy.

“What kind of a country do we live in, where if you ask a question, you get sued? That’s really off,” Price said Wednesday.

The debate in Palo Alto is part of a larger battle about privacy vs. access to public records and the right of citizens to know how their tax dollars are spent.

The public needs the salaries of individual city workers in order to judge the competency and honesty of city government, according to Price and other open records advocates. “A lot of times you can spot mismanagement in government by how overtime is being paid out,” he said.

The numbers released Wednesday, which were also made available to the Mercury News, did shed light on some interesting facts about how Palo Alto’s employees are paid:

A Palo Alto police agent earned $84,644 in overtime last year, making him the king of overtime and one of the highest paid officials in the city. The unnamed officer collected $85,811 in regular pay, giving him a grand total of $170,455. He was essentially working two jobs, investigating crimes and filling a vacant dispatcher’s position, according to Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison.

Overall, firefighters tended to earn the most overtime. That’s because the department is required to maintain a certain staffing level at all times, said Tony Spitaleri, a union leader. It’s cheaper for the city to pay overtime than to hire more workers and fund their benefits, he said.

Total spending on salaries has gone up in the past three years, despite the recession. That’s because city workers signed generous multi-year union contracts before the economic bust, Harrison said.

The highest paid worker in 2003 was City Manager Frank Benest, who earned $179,712.

It has long been assumed that the public could learn the salary of a specific public employee, but a state appeals court ruling in October threw that assumption into question.

Employee unions sued several Peninsula cities, and ultimately the Daily News and the Mercury News, to block release of names-and-salaries lists. California’s 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled that privacy rights could trump the state public records law.

A settlement in the case left the newspapers without the lists they sought.

“I suspect it’s been quite influential in encouraging public employee unions to get involved in resisting these disclosures,” said Terry Francke, a public records expert at Californians Aware, an organization based in Carmichael that supports open government.

The city of Oakland has cited that appeals court ruling in refusing to release detailed salary lists to the Contra Costa Times. Price said he would let the Times, backed by the resources of its parent company, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, wage the legal fight over names. His own paper is too small to pay the necessary legal bills, he said.

Contact Dan Stober at dstober@mercurynews.com or (650) 688-7536.

SF Press Club News

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