The state Supreme Court ruled today that the salaries of government employees in California are a matter of public record and must be available upon request to “ensure transparency in government.” The decision, stemming from a lawsuit the Contra Costa Times brought against the City of Oakland, ends a three-year-long legal battle.

The decision overrules a 2003 appellate court decision in a San Mateo County case that governments have cited to block access to salary data. In that San Mateo County case, Superior Court Judge Rosemary Pfeiffer refused to allow the release of salaries of government employees in five cities to the Palo Alto Daily News. Her ruling was upheld by an appeals court. The decision caused several cities in the region to stop providing salary data to the media.

“I think this is a landmark opinion affirming the public’s right of access to information about how the government is run and how tax dollars are spent,” said Karl Olsen, the attorney for the CC Times.

Some excerpts from today’s ruling:

    Of course, we recognize that many individuals, including public employees, may be uncomfortable with the prospect of others knowing their salary and that many of these individuals would share that information only on a selective basis, even within the workplace. Nor do we question that public disclosure of an individual’s salary may cause discomfort or embarrassment. 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. …

    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 Newspapers submitted to the trial court numerous examples of articles published throughout the state that used information concerning public employee salaries to illustrate claimed nepotism, favoritism, or financial mismanagement in state and local government. For instance, one article disclosed that a city department manager’s wife was earning $80,000 as an information technology specialist assigned to that department while the department was suffering a budget shortfall requiring layoffs. Another article exposed the circumstance that a city assessor hired a number of individuals who had contributed to (or worked on) her election campaign. … These examples, even when they reveal no impropriety, amply illustrate that disclosure of government salary information serves a significant public interest.

In a separate case, the state Supreme Court ruled today that public has the right to inspect the hiring records of police agencies throughout California and to learn the names and salaries of government employees. The Los Angeles Times sued after the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which keeps a database on the employment history of all police officers in the state, refused to release such records. [Video of newsroom reaction] [PDF of the ruling] [CC Times story with a timeline at the end]

SF Press Club News

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