Public-vs.-private information again focus in Capitol

The dispute between newspapers and the government over the privacy of government employee information is again surfacing in the state Capitol, this time in the form of proposed legislation.

At issue is whether the salary and other information about police officers should be part of the public record. Two state Supreme Court rulings last years-one in favor of the Contra Costa Times, the other in favor of the Los Angeles Times-said the information should be in the public domain.

But last week, the Contra Costa Times reported that amendments had been proposed to legislation carried by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, La Canada Flintridge. If amended, his AB 1855, would remove the information from the public domain. Details of the issue also were reported in the CNP Bulletin, a newsletter of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The bill's sponsor is the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a group that lobbies for officers.

In last year's rulings, the state Supreme Court said that the salaries of police officers, as well as all other government employees, are a matter of public record. The decision followed a lengthy battle waged by the Contra Costa Times to get at the information.
The court also ruled, in a case brought by the Los Angeles Times, that the names and basic employment information such as an officer's name are public record.

Portantino's bill originally dealt with police interrogation tactics, but the proposed amendments would ban public the disclosure of the information addressed in the court decisions. The bill would also ban the mass release of salary data "including posting or publishing on the Internet."

Contra Costa Times Executive Editor Kevin Keane said lawmakers should let the Supreme Court ruling on salaries stand.
"No legislative end-around is going to change the fact that the citizens of the state of California have a right to information found to be within the public domain," Keane said. "In the case of police officers' salaries, the court couldn't have been clearer."

The employment files of police officers are banned from public disclosure – unlike records of other government workers in California. Lawyers representing the Oakland Police Officers Association argued before the court last year that salary information should be part of that ban.

But in a sweeping decision, the court ruled that the salaries were public record and can be disclosed on demand, along with those of all other government workers.

"Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in a 30-page opinion, upholding a pair of lower court decisions. George wrote that "the strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money" trumped arguments against disclosure.

The California Newspaper Publishers' Association began a lobbying effort against Portantino's bill Monday.
"Portantino's bill would stop the public from monitoring excessive pay, overtime abuse, nepotism, gender and race discrimination, and the migration of potentially abusive peace officers from one agency to the next," said Tom Newton the associations' general counsel said in a statement.

"The bill would make public safety employees wholly unaccountable to the public they serve," he said.

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