Los Angeles County officials are taking steps to keep secret the names and salaries of some highly paid county employees, saying they need more time to comply with public records law to protect workers who claim that disclosure could put them at risk.
The response came after The Times asked for the identities and pay of county workers who earn $250,000 or more annually, a request made in the wake of the salary scandal in Bell, where eight current and former city officials face corruption charges of misappropriation of public funds.
"As some of these concerns are potentially legitimate, especially those relating to personal safety, the county developed a process by which employees may request anonymity for personal safety and other legitimate reasons," Takade wrote. She added that the requested data, "with appropriate redaction as to employees requiring anonymity," would probably be ready in early October.
County officials are surveying all 100,000 county employees. The Times' request for information covers no more than a few hundred.
A broad refusal to release employee salary information would be in "total violation" of a 2007 California Supreme Court ruling, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.
He said the ruling was "pretty emphatic in determining that public employees, with very few exceptions, don't have a reasonable expectation to privacy in their salary or compensation information."
The ruling involved a case in which Contra Costa Times reporters sought the names, job titles and salaries of all Oakland city employees who earned $100,000 or more for the 2003-04 fiscal year. Oakland refused to identify employees, even though it had done so in the past.
"Openness in government is essential to the functioning of democracy," Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in a majority opinion, signed by three other justices. Three other justices wrote opinions that concurred with portions of the majority ruling and dissented from others.
"We recognize that many individuals, including public employees, may be uncomfortable with the prospect of others knowing their salary," the ruling said. "Nonetheless, in light of the strong public policy supporting transparency in government, an individual's expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector."
Government agencies, both California and federal, have a long history of making clear that the public has a right to know the salaries and names of government workers. Even before the California Public Records Act was signed into law in 1968, the California attorney general's office in 1955 wrote that "the name of every public officer and employee, as well as the amount of his salary, is a matter of public record."
Takade, of the county counsel's office, said in an e-mail that she believed that the 2007 opinion of the Supreme Court "does not preclude the county from redacting an employee's identity and workplace if such disclosure would threaten the employee's personal safety."
Takade cited an example in which disclosure of a worker's name could allow an ex-spouse stalker to "easily discover the whereabouts of that employee."
The Supreme Court ruling acknowledged one narrow possibility in which it would be in the public interest to keep a public employee's salary confidential — the case of an undercover police officer. But the justices concluded in the 2007 case that Oakland and the unions failed to provide specific evidence on why particular individuals' salary should be kept confidential.
Furthermore, the ruling stated that police officers in general do not have a blanket right to keep their salaries secret.
"Counterbalancing any cognizable interest that public employees may have in avoiding disclosure of their salaries is the strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money," the ruling said.
"Public access makes it possible for members of the public 'to expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice, and favoritism,' " the ruling said, quoting from an earlier court opinion.
The ruling cited numerous published articles in which disclosing salaries served a "significant public interest." One example was how state employees were being reclassified as "safety workers" to get higher pension benefits. Another was how a University of California executive won a pay raise even as the university ordered tuition increases and worker layoffs.
Ewert, of the newspapers association, said the recent revelations of highly paid officials in Bell, a story uncovered by The Times, shows the importance of disclosing taxpayer-funded salaries.
"Public pay is the public's business," Ewert said. "Without the ability of the public to learn how much public employees are making, there is absolutely no way that they can oversee what government officials are doing on their behalf."
"The California Supreme Court has already decided this issue," said Karl Olson, a media attorney who argued for the Contra Costa Times in the 2007 Supreme Court case. "For L.A. County to be taking this position is rather surprising and seems to reflect almost a willful ignorance of the law."