Taxpayers pay the salaries of public employees, but do their names have to be identified with their wages?
That is the heart of a new dispute in Fresno County Superior Court. A public agency in Fresno County is keeping secret the identities of its employees so their salaries can’t be published next to their names, and that upsets a watchdog group.
Under the California Public Records Act, the public has the right to know who is getting paid public money, Transparent California said in a lawsuit filed Monday in Fresno County Superior Court.
Transparent California is a watchdog group that has made a name for itself posting the names and salaries of public employees – from university presidents to entry-level clerks.
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Last year, the group made headlines when it exposed that a janitor at Bay Area Rapid Transit, whose job title was “system service worker,” was being paid $270,000 a year, including overtime and benefits.
But the Fresno Council of Governments told Transparent California that state law requires only the release of the job title of the employee and the salary amount, not the name of the worker.
A Fresno County judge could make the final call.
Whatever interest employees have in privacy, if any, is outweighed by a very strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money.
The Fresno Council of Goverments has 28 employees and 16 unpaid board members. It is partially supported by dues from its 16 members, but the major revenue sources include federal and state grants. The agency has no taxing or legislative authority.
In 2015, it had a total payroll of $2.8 million including salaries and benefits, according to information on the state Controller’s Office website.
Transparent California filed a petition for a writ of mandate asking that a judge order the Fresno Council of Governments, a transportation planning agency that doles out road-building money to cities and the county, to divulge the names along with the salary amounts.
The group has requested names, salaries and job titles from 10 other Council of Governments around the state, and Fresno is the only one not to share the information, said Robert Fellner, research director for Nevada Policy Research Institute, a think tank and the parent group of Transparent California that is based in Las Vegas.
“This kind of response is extremely rare,” Fellner said. “They sent us a very long letter saying we’re deliberately not providing you names.”
The letter by Les Beshears, finance director, is included in the lawsuit as an exhibit. The Fresno Council of Governments did not return a call from The Bee asking for comment.
Here, once again, is the information we can legally provide…in the format provide to the State Controller’s Office.
Les Beshears, Fresno Council of Governments
Beshears wrote in the letter that a similar case went to the First District Court of Appeal after a lower court ordered the release of salary information without the names of the individual employees.
The appeals court pointed to a section of the California Public Records Act that states, “Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to require disclosure of records that...would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” Beshears wrote.
“Here, once again, is the information we can legally provide…in the format provided to the State Controller’s Office,” Beshears wrote. The state Controller’s Office lists job titles and salary, but not names.
Transparent California’s petition states that the case Beshears cited has been overruled.
Additionally, the letter by the agency cites a section of law that applies to personnel files, the lawsuit states. Records of names are not exempt from disclosure, and the release of the names is not an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, it states.
“Whatever interest employees have in privacy, if any, is outweighed by a very strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money,” it states.
The Fresno Council of Governments has 30 days to respond after it is formally served a copy of the petition.