Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Court to rule on paper's fight for salary data

The California Supreme Court this morning (May 30) heard arguments about whether the salaries of government employees should be public information. The case pits the Contra Costa Times, which has been fighting for the records, against public employee unions, who claim the data invades their members' privacy.

The court heard arguments today about a case in which the Coco Times requested the salaries of all Oakland city government workers who made more than $100,000 a year. The unions sued to stop the release of information. The Coco Times won at trial and won an appeal. Now the unions have taken the case to the Supreme Court. Coco Times writer Thomas Peele wrote this preview story.

The Coco Times decided to get into a court battle for the salaries after a 2003 ruling in San Mateo County gave cities an excuse to stop furnishing salary information to the public.

In San Mateo County, Superior Court Judge Rosemary Pfeiffer denied an attempt by the Palo Alto Daily News [see disclosure below] to obtain the salaries of city workers in Atherton, Belmont, Burlingame, San Carlos and San Mateo. The newspaper had published the names and salaries of Palo Alto and Menlo Park city employees for several years and decided in 2003 to also publish the salaries of the city workers in those five additional cities.

After reporter Christina Bellantoni asked for the salary data from each of the cities, the unions were tipped off to the request and they filed a lawsuit seeking to block the release of the information. The Daily News filed a motion to intervene in the case, aruging that the California Public Records Act specicially allows the release of such information. Pfeiffer initially sided with the newspaper in a tentative ruling, and then held oral arguments.

The union's successful argument was that a privacy clause in the state constitution trumped the state law that requires the release of the salaries.

The newspaper's argued that taxpayers had a right to see how their dollars were being spent and that disclosure by name prevents favoritism — like an elected official giving a job to a relative or cronie. The newspaper also pointed out that disclosure of the salaries also makes it harder for unions to argue that their workers are underpaid.

At the end of the hearing, the judge crossed out her tentative ruling and, in a hand-written order, granted the demands of the unions. An appeals court upheld Pfeiffer's ruling, with one appelate judge remarking from the bench that he hated it when his salary was in the paper, too.

The Daily News, which was later joined by the Mercury News in fighting the case, decided to settle rather than going to the state Supreme Court, where Pfeiffer's ruling might have been upheld and become law. Appeals courts in other parts of the state had previously ruled in favor of disclosing salary information, but if the unions had prevailed at the high court level, then those rulings elsewhere in the state would have been voided.

The state Supreme Court has 90 days to issue a written ruling in the Oakland case. If the Coco Times loses, California will become the only state in the U.S. where government salaries are secret.

Links:* Disclosure: The item above was written by Press Club vice president Dave Price, who was the editor and co-publisher of the Palo Alto Daily News when the salaries lawsuit was in the courts.

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