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California Ruling Allowing Disclosure of Public Employee Salaries Keeps on Giving

Last year’s California Supreme Court ruling mandating disclosure of public employee salaries is the gift that keeps on giving to the public.

Every day, some newspaper throughout the state does a story reporting on some city which can’t manage its budget, or some public employee who appears to be making more money than they should because of nepotism or cronyism. Transparency is vital to allow the public to at least see what’s happening and agitate for change.

Some (but not all) powerful public employee unions, including those representing police and prison guards, waged a long fight recently to keep named public employee salaries under wraps. That fight ended last August when the California Supreme Court, in a lawsuit brought by the Contra Costa Times, held that public employee salaries are public records. The court held that disclosure of public employee salaries is necessary to guard against instances of nepotism, cronyism and inefficiency. The Court also brushed aside claims by police that their salaries couldn’t be disclosed because of separate laws governing disclosure of police records.

The Court’s ruling (full disclosure: I represented the Contra Costa Times in the case) pays daily dividends to the public. California has a multi-billion dollar deficit, and one of its cities, Vallejo, recently faced bankruptcy because of police and fire pay. There are many hard-working aunderpaid public employees out there, but there are also many instances of nepotism and out-of-control overtime. In the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, people in an open society don’t demand infallibility from their government, but it’s difficult for them to accept what they can’t observe. Last year’s public employee salary ruling from California’s high court at least lets the public see who earns what.

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