From: Contra Costa Times
State Supreme Court justices, considering Wednesday whether to allow public release of government worker salaries, expressed concern that disclosing the names and pay of some police might endanger officers.
“In a very small number of cases, disclosure of salary might indicate an officer is working undercover,” Justice Joyce Kennard said. She and Chief Justice Ronald George said excluding information for some police could be warranted while not withholding salaries for all officers.
Their comments came as the high court heard appeals from a pair of Oakland employee unions arguing to overturn lower court decisions that the gross pay of all government workers is public record. The case stems from a lawsuit the Times brought against Oakland in 2004 after the city refused to release individual employees’ salaries.
An Alameda County Superior Court judge and a three-judge appellate panel sided with the newspaper in separate decisions. The appeals that led to Wednesday’s hearing were filed more than two years ago. Some cities, such as Concord, have refused to release employees’ salaries until the high court rules.
Although questions over police salaries dominated the hourlong hearing, the justices asked few questions about the disclosure of the salaries of other government workers.
“I don’t understand what is so personally intrusive to know what a person on the public payroll is earning,” George said.
Kennard said salary disclosure fulfills the public’s “interest and concern. There is substantial public interest in knowing how government spends money. It leads to more openness and to improving the honesty of government.”
Duane Reno, the attorney for Local 21 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said he agreed, but he said salaries should be released only rarely and not in response to “blanket requests.”
Reno reiterated arguments he made in lower courts that disclosure could lead to employees being targeted by mass marketers and identity thieves. Disclosure, he said, leads to invasion of privacy contrary to the state constitution. “What the newspaper is asking for is mass, indiscriminate disclosure,” Reno said.
George countered that Reno’s argument came in an age when people already are the recipients of “junk mail and spam heaped upon us” and that the right to public information is “enshrined in the Public Records Act.”
But the chief justice said the court needs to balance interests. The state constitution protects privacy, but it also gives the public the right to government information. “There are two competing principles both enshrined in the constitution,” he said.
The justices seemed less convinced about the release of all police salaries.
Oakland Police Officer Association lawyer Alison Berry Wilkinson argued that state law prohibits the disclosure of salaries that can be matched to names. Kennard told her, “I don’t think you have the law on your side.”
But, Kennard said, the law also might not force the release of police names matched with salaries if an officer might be endangered. And Justice Ming Chin said too much information “might put undercover cops in danger.”
George repeatedly asked whether any disclosure requirement should contain exemptions for officers who need to keep their identities hidden. Exclusions, he said, should be limited. “You don’t want exemptions swallowing up the whole.”
Times attorney Karl Olson said that no evidence had been presented in the three-year-old case that indicated the release of salary information had ever harmed a police officer or any other public employee.
“Salary disclosure goes to the heart of self-governance,” Olson said. “There is a long history of disclosure. It is a matter of public record, and police officers are not treated differently.”
Also Wednesday, the high court heard an appeal from the Los Angeles Times that the names and dates of hire of police officers are public record.
The state Police Officer Standards and Training Commission has refused to release that information under the Public Records Act, calling it a confidential personnel matter.
Justice Carol Corrigan said that decision made little sense to her. “Doesn’t the public have a right to know the identities of the people it sends out armed in public to enforce its laws?” she said. “Wouldn’t all this information become public the first time a rookie police officer testifies in court?”
But Kennard said the information requested “is the kind of stuff that is part and parcel of employment history” that could be considered confidential.
The high court has 90 days to issue written rulings in both cases.