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Public employees’ rights to privacy are outweighed by the public’s right to know, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday in a couple of highly awaited decisions on open-records issues. The court’s companion rulings held that the Contra Costa Times is entitled to the names and salaries of the city of Oakland’s highest-paid employees, and that the Los Angeles Times should have been granted access to certain “innocuous information” about peace officers around the state. “Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy,” Chief Justice Ronald George, who authored both opinions, wrote in the Oakland ruling. Karl Olson, the partner at San Francisco’s Levy, Ram & Olson who represented the Contra Costa Times, called the rulings “important” victories that should “bring clarity to the handling of public records requests.” (Olson’s firm also regularly represents The Recorder.) But while the justices were unanimous in holding that most public employees’ names and salaries should be disclosed, they weren’t on the same page on other key issues. Justices Ming Chin and Marvin Baxter, in particular, had difficulty with peace officers’ information. While the two justices felt their salaries were disclosable, they didn’t like the idea of forcing their employers to release their names. In International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21, AFL-CIO v. Superior Court (Contra Costa Newspapers Inc.), 07 C.D.O.S. 10097, the Contra Costa Times sued after the city of Oakland refused to disclose the names and salaries of all employees who earned more than $100,000 annually. The city argued that a state statute exempts personnel files from disclosures that constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick sided with the newspaper, however, and was upheld in 2005 by the First District Court of Appeal. The city of Oakland wasn’t involved in that appeal, which, instead, was filed by two unions � the International Federation and the Police Officers Association. In affirming Monday, the Supreme Court noted that disclosure of public employees’ names and salaries is “overwhelmingly the norm” around the country. George pointed out that while public employees might be “uncomfortable” or suffer “embarrassment” about their salaries being disclosed, the state has a “strong public policy supporting transparency in government.” Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Carlos Moreno and Joyce Kennard, as well as Justice Sandy Kriegler, sitting by assignment from L.A.’s Second District, concurred. (Kriegler sat in for Justice Carol Corrigan, who had concurred in the ruling while at the First District). In both rulings, however, George pointed out that individual peace officers working undercover might have a “legitimate interest” in maintaining their anonymity. Therefore, in the other ruling � Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training v. Superior Court (Los Angeles Times Communications LLC), 07 C.D.O.S. 10084 � George clarified that in some cases, agencies could excise information about officers with risky jobs if “the safety or efficacy of the officers would be jeopardized by disclosure.” In general, though, the court ruled that peace officers’ privacy and safety interests don’t outweigh the public’s interest in the kind of information sought by the L.A. Times. The newspaper had approached the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, a state agency that establishes standards of physical, mental and moral fitness for California’s peace officers, for every officer’s name and birth date, employing agency, appointment date, termination date and reason for firing. The newspaper’s request was restricted to the years from 1991 to 2001, and was to be used to document trends on officer movement for a story on the effectiveness of California’s criminal justice system. Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly sided with the L.A. Times for the most part, but was overturned by the Third District Court of Appeal. That court agreed with the Commission on Peace Officer Standards, which had argued the information sought was contained in peace officer personnel records, which by state law are “categorically exempt” from disclosure. In reversing on Monday, the Supreme Court said the Third District’s ruling was too narrow, and that the information requested by the L.A. Times isn’t of the nature that exempts it from disclosure. In fact, the court said badge numbers and names are “innocuous” and already available to the public. Werdegar, Moreno and Corrigan concurred. Kennard agreed that the names are public record, but not the rest of the information requested. In his dissent, joined by Baxter, Chin said that the information sought by the newspaper clearly constituted personnel records that by state law must be kept confidential. He also worried that releasing the information could endanger officers. “Given that publicly available databases on the Internet make it easy to link a name to an address,” he wrote, “the release of an officer’s name would not seem to pose much, if any, less of a safety risk than would disclosing an officer’s home address.” Kelli Sager, a partner in Davis Wright Tremaine’s San Francisco office who represented the L.A. Times, called the decision “significant.” If the high court had affirmed the Third District, she said, it would have been “an astonishing retrenchment of public access to information about individuals who not only have very important positions in state government, but are the only people authorized in the state to use deadly force.” Duane Reno, a partner in San Francisco’s Davis & Reno who represented the unions in the Oakland case, said the ruling opens public employees up to unwanted telephone solicitors. “The federal courts have held that there is a privacy right that is violated,” he said, “when disclosure of information means you’re going to be the targets of commercial solicitations.” Michael Whitaker, the Los Angeles-based deputy attorney general who represented the Commission on Peace Officer Standards, didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment on Monday.

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