Public right to know wins twice

California government transparency and the public’s right to know have had a difficult time in the last few years. But with two important wins announced Monday from the California Supreme Court in San Francisco, several of the state’s worst recent roadblocks to freedom of information have been removed.

California’s highest bench ruled that government worker salaries and hiring records should be open to the public — overriding the arguments of a state commission, police and civil service unions, and an appeals court loss. In separate split decisions, both majority opinions were written by Chief Justice Ronald M. George.

The Los Angeles Times fought for five years to win their police hiring lawsuit. A reporter investigating tips about trouble-prone officers simply transferring to different California law enforcement agencies was stonewalled by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards, which collects such records statewide.

The Contra Costa Times sued to obtain the names and pay of Oakland employees earning $100,000 a year or more. The newspaper won in lower courts, but public employee unions appealed the case all the way to California’s top court.

By ruling twice in favor of California citizens’ right to know, the Supreme Court reopened wide swaths of public personnel information that previously was kept routinely inaccessible by government agencies. But such major wins are far too infrequent in this court.

The Supreme Court justices’ unfortunate year-old decision to halt public access to police misconduct hearings and records is still on the books. And a legislative bill to overturn the decision was defeated, at least for this session, by a frontal assault of serious arm-twisting by police unions.

It was this week in 2006 that Copley Press v. Superior Court essentially dismantled the long-standing legal precedent that proceedings and records of police misconduct hearings before independent bodies such as civilian review boards or police commissions must be fully open to the public.

The Copley decision held confidential San Diego Civil Service Commission records on appeals of internal affairs investigations of citizen complaints against police officers; because the commission’s disciplinary function was supposedly too similar to confidential police department personnel administration.

Senate Bill 1019, introduced by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, would have effectively overruled the Copley decision and restored open access. The legislation passed handily in the Senate. But upon reaching the Assembly Public Safety Committee last month it was effectively shelved without a single motion to vote it out of committee.

An open and transparent oversight process can only benefit the vast majority of fine officers who have nothing to hide, as The Examiner first stated in a May editorial supporting SB 1019. Police falsely accused will be more convincingly exonerated. It is vital that the public maintain trust in its police force and be willing to cooperate in criminal investigations.

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