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Salaries exploded without news coverage

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, writes in the Voice of OC online news serivce, “The explosive self-dealing scandal that has in a matter of weeks blown away the city of Bell’s senior administrative tier was probably inevitable, given the gaps in the Brown Act and the newspaper publishing tradition that once provided small towns with a watchful eye and a voice to be reckoned with.”

In a related note, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today in a speech in San Diego challenged cities to post officials’ salaries on websites if they have nothing to hide.

In 2003, San Mateo County Judge Rosemary Pfeiffer ruled that the salaries of government employees were secret. Her ruling came in a case where the cities of Atherton, Burlingame, Foster City, San Carlos and San Mateo along with unions representing employees in those cities sued the Palo Alto Daily News over its request to obtain their salaries.

An appeals court upheld her ruling, and the Daily News dropped the case. The now-defunct Knight Ridder chain, which jumped in to assist the Daily News fight the suit, decided to battle the case in a different venue.

Knight Ridder had its Contra Costa Times request salaries for all Oakland city government employees making over $100,000 a year. The unions there sued over the request. A trial was held in Alameda County, and the Times won. The unions appealed and the Times won again.

The unions appealed to the California Supreme Court, which ruled on Aug. 27, 2007 that the salaries of government employees are a matter of public record and must be available upon request to “ensure transparency in government.” [Full disclosure: The editor of the Press Club blog, Dave Price, was an owner of the Daily News during the salaries lawsuit, a case known as Teamsters v. Priceless.]

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