Thursday, April 3, 2003

Judge orders cities to keep salaries secret

From the San Mateo Daily News, Redwood City Daily News, Palo Alto Daily News

By CHRISTINA BELLANTONI
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

In a ruling that could echo throughout California, a judge ruled yesterday that all salaries of all government employees in California are now secret.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Rosemary Pfeiffer granted a temporary restraining order preventing a group of Peninsula cities from releasing names and salary information to the Daily News. Pfeiffer also ruled the information should be private.

The newspaper is appealing, and a legal expert said he was both "shocked and astonished" by the decision.

The issue hit court when a group of labor unions asked a judge to stop city governments from releasing the names and salaries of city employees to the Daily News after the newspaper requested the information.

Teamsters and two chapters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sought the restraining order against Atherton, Burlingame, Foster City, San Carlos and Belmont. Under Pfeiffer's ruling, the public no longer has access to salary information for employees at any of the hundreds of cities in California.

If John Q Taxpayer strolls into City Hall to ask for salaries of any employee, from the city manager to the employee that does street cleaning, he'll be denied, even though his tax dollars pay those salaries. Pfeiffer's decision is binding, and applies statewide unless an appellate court decides otherwise, legal experts say.

Jim Ewert, general counsel with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Daily News last night he was "shocked."

Though nearly a dozen cases have tested the California Public Records Act, not one court had found a privacy interest in the information, Ewert said.

"I'm astonished," Ewert said.

The salary of anyone who earns taxpayer money is "very public," Ewert said.

Not according to Pfeiffer, who ruled that "the court finds a reasonable expectation of privacy in the employees based on the confidentiality policies of the city."

The Daily News will appeal the decision, Publisher Dave Price said.

"We're going to fight it every step of the way, as high as we need to go," Price said, indicating the newspaper will take the case to the California Supreme Court if necessary.

The newspaper expects it will prevail, Price said, noting the paper will then seek to recover attorney fees from the cities and unions.

"We're going to seek attorney's fees from the city treasuries and union dues," Price said. "We will win on this."

In court yesterday, union lawyers, city attorneys and Daily News attorney James Chadwick squared off.

Andrew Baker, an Oakland attorney representing the unions, argued that government employees have an expectation of privacy when it comes to their own salaries. That right, Baker argued, outweighs the public's right to know.

Chadwick said the information is public in California, other states and also regarding federal employees.

The city attorneys told the judge they each have policies prohibiting the release of government employees' salaries.

But these cities many times have given the names and salaries of their employees to the Daily News in the past.

For example, in December 2000 the Daily News was given information that stated Atherton building official Mike Hood earned $8,452 per month. It was published in a Dec. 27 article.

In addition, the cities of Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Menlo Park, Monte Sereno and Redwood City have all complied with the same request, handing over employee names and salaries. The information has been published in the Daily News.

Pfeiffer also wrote in her ruling the paper "failed to articulate or show the public interest in the disclosure of information linked to individuals."

Chadwick argued in court that the California Public Records Act states a person doesn't need to have a reason to seek public record.

Chadwick said the law is clear that the government can't ask those who request the information why they want it. If the cities had the right to deny information based on the reasons a requester gives, Chadwick said, then the cities could pick and choose who gets public information, thus editing the news.

In February the Daily News sent Public Records Act requests to 16 cities, asking specifically for names, titles and wages of all city employees for the calendar year 2002. The lump-sum figure requested includes all compensation paid to these employees during the year, including regular hours, overtime and bonuses.

The newspaper is seeking the salaries at a time when many city governments are making decisions about where the budget ax must fall.

Terry Francke of the California First Amendment Coalition affirms the names and salaries of municipal employees are public and not protected.

Francke explained the information is public because the employees are paid with tax dollars, and the contract of every city employee is a matter of public record.

When the matter is appealed, it will be the first time an appellate court will hear it. If the court determines it's right for publication, it will be precedent setting, according to Ewert.

Ewert said that until an appeals court issues a published opinion, Pfeiffer's ruling can't be used as precedent for other newspapers seeking the same information. Superior Court opinions can't be used as legal authority, Ewert said.

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

April 2003 Press Club board minutes

Minutes of Peninsula Press Club Board of Directors meeting of April 1, 2003, at the Kingfish Restaurant in San Mateo.

In attendance were: Ed Remitz, John Kane, Darryl Compton, Jon Mays, John Horgan, Aimee Lewis and Dave Price. President John Kane called the meeting to order at 5:38 p.m.

Minutes of the March 12, 2003, meeting were approved, 6-0. There was no treasurer's report due to Michelle Carter's absence. Darryl Compton was congratulated on his recent marriage.

Compton said the club's professional journalism contest has netted a total of $11,740 in combined entry and membership fees. He added that, because of a lack of outside judges available to help with the contest, the date of the annual awards banquet may have to be postponed. The board, after deciding to scour sources for judges for 188 of 453 remaining contest entries, agreed, 6-0, to hold the dinner May 30 at the Holiday Inn Select Hotel in Foster City. Aimee Lewis said the date was OK. She has secured a reservation on that date and she has obtained a $3.80 reduction in the cost of each meal from the 2002 figure.

John Kane said interviews with potential club scholarship winners have been scheduled. A discussion of possible changes in the club's bylaws was postponed. Dave Price said the club's Web site received 273 "hits" in March. It was agreed to hold the club's regular meeting on the second Wednesday of each month at 6:15 p.m. at the Kingfish Restaurant in San Mateo.

There was a discussion about a set of unusual entries in the club's high school journalism contest. The entries were from an alternative newspaper at Terra Nova High School in Pacifica. It was agreed that they met the criteria for inclusion in the competition despite the fact that "The Subterranean" is not sanctioned by the school. After some analysis and debate, the board voted, 6-0, to include the entries in the contest.

Dave Price said he has a staff member at the Daily News who is interested in re-instituting meetings of the Bench/Bar/Media Committee. Price also volunteered to have the Daily News help judge the Bay Area Collegiate Newspaper Contest. He then suggested that the club consider the possibility of changing the name of the organization to something like the "San Francisco Peninsula Press Club." It was agreed to bring up the matter sometime during the summer.

John Kane urged the board members to consider new officers for 2003-04. He adjourned the meeting at 6:55 p.m. The next meeting will be held at 6:16 p.m. May 14 at the Kingfish Restaurant.

Minutes submitted by John Horgan, secretary.