By Thomas Peele
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
OAKLAND – The public possesses an overriding interest in knowing the salaries of public employees, a judge said Friday afternoon, indicating he would order Oakland to release employee pay data to the Times that the city has refused to disclose.
“My feeling is the (newspaper’s) petition should be granted,” Alameda Superior Court Judge Steven A. Brick said at the start of a 70-minute hearing. Salaries, he said, “are a matter of public interest.” The Times “has established the manner in which the data has been used in California and elsewhere” in matters of “strong public interest.”
Salary data, the judge said, “is needed to scrutinize public budgets to (make sure) taxpayers’ limited resources are well spent.”
Attorneys for Oakland and two employee unions argued that the exact pay of employees is a matter of confidentiality and personal privacy that the state constitution protects. That journalists might find wrongdoing through far-ranging requests for salaries is too speculative to trump privacy, they argued.
“They could accomplish what they want to accomplish with just the numbers,” said Duane Reno, an attorney for the International Federation of Professional Engineers Local 21, which represents the city’s white-collar employees.
Times attorney Karl Olson told Brick that reporters need the data to unearth corruption and favoritism. “They want us to uncover government wrongdoing without giving us the information to do so,” he said.
The Times sued Oakland in July after the city refused to release data for employees it paid in excess of $100,000 in 2003, an apparent violation of the state Public Records Act and of Oakland’s ordinance requiring disclosure of such information. The city had released names with salaries for at least the past eight years.
“Times change,” said Julia Bond, an attorney representing the city. She argued that a state appellate court decision last year upheld employees’ privacy rights over salary data.
Brick said his only concern was over the salaries of police officers. State law blocking access to police personnel files extends to any other government file where data might be maintained, said Oakland Police Officers Association attorney Alison Berry Wilkinson.
“These are all parts of the file of the employee’s record,” Wilkinson said of officers’ payroll records that other city departments maintain. “Any file maintained under a (police officer’s) name is confidential,” she said.
Olson said it is clear the law does not extend to financial data the city may use for payroll processing and budget planning. “You can’t shield someone simply by putting something in a personnel file,” he said. Brick called the issue “highly technical” and said he would study case law on it.
Earlier this month, a state appellate court in Southern California ruled that the San Diego County Civil Service Commission had to release information on a fired deputy sheriff because the commission was not his employer and the information was kept outside the deputy’s personnel file. The deputy’s lawyers argued the information, including the officer’s name, was confidential.
The Times’ case against Oakland has drawn statewide interest. The Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union Tribune, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle and the California Newspaper Publishers Association filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the Times.
State Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, said last month he would introduce a bill in December to ensure that no government employee salary information is withheld from public disclosure.
On Friday, attorney Duane Reno told Brick that if newspapers obtained city pay records they might sell them to banks or advertisers. That would invite unwanted solicitations from investment counselors or stockbrokers, he said.
Olson noted that Oakland has released salary data in past years and that neither the city nor the unions could cite any instances in which employees were approached in such a matter or in any way harassed.
“The people who are going to take advantage of it in a manipulative sense are already doing it,” Brick said.
While Reno and Wilkinson argued that the Times’ request for information was too broad, Olson countered that the newspaper asked only for names and salaries of about 10 percent of the roughly 5,400-member city work force.
“We are talking about discriminate disclosure,” Olson said of employees paid in excess of $100,000. Brick said he would issue a written decision within 90 days.
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