Taft complies, two more suits filed

After years of refusing to provide an accounting of city workers’ names and salaries, Taft fully complied with our request just a day after our lawsuit was filed. 

For more about the nature of that dispute, be sure to check out the fantastic media coverage from Bakersfieldnow.com. And to view the pay data itself, head on over to TransparentCalifornia.com.

Unfortunately, two more lawsuits were filed last week against non-compliant agencies: The Fresno Council of Governments and the City of Hanford.

I suppose when you are requesting data from over 2,500 unique agencies there are going to be a few that play hardball!

You can learn more about those cases by checking out the media coverage below:

ABC30 Fresno Action News

Fresno Council of Governments sued for violating state’s public records law

Today, the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) filed a lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court against the Fresno Council of Governments for refusing to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

The lawsuit stems from NPRI’s work on its TransparentCalifornia.com website — which publishes the pay and pension data of nearly 2.5 million California public employees from over 2,000 unique government agencies.

The Council denied Transparent California’s request for records documenting the names and wages of its employees on the grounds that such information is confidential.

The Council’s rationale for withholding the requested public records contradicts longstanding California law, dating back to a 1955 official Attorney General Opinion that held that “the name of every public officer and employee, as well as the amount of his salary, is a matter of public record,” and a 2007 state Supreme Court case which codified that same finding.

Thus, the Council has unlawfully denied a request to access public records, according to Transparent California research director Robert Fellner.

“The California Public Records Act is emphatic in its purpose to make public all records concerning governmental affairs. The Fresno Council of Governments’ refusal to provide an accounting of their employees’ names and taxpayer-funded salaries is a clear violation of the law.”

The Council is designated by the state as a transportation planning agency and is comprised of 15 Fresno-area cities and the County of Fresno. The California State Controller’s Office reports that there are 11 “Council of Governments” agencies statewide. Transparent California has received the requested information from every one but Fresno:

Transparent California’s repeated attempts to inform the Council of their obligations under the law and elicit a lawful response went unheeded, leaving litigation as the only avenue available to access the public information sought.

The lawsuit asks the Court to compel the Fresno Council of Governments to comply with the CPRA and provide a copy of records documenting their employees’ name and salary information so that it may be published online at TransparentCalifornia.com.

TransparentCalifornia.com is used by millions of Californians each year and has received praise for its ability to successfully improve transparency in government by elected officials, government employees, the media, and concerned citizens alike.

For more information, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.

 

California labor union influence kills public records bill

Well, my earlier op-ed arguing that California needs to put some heat in its sunshine law went spectacularly unheeded, with the bill being gutted entirely last week!

In an exclusive op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune, I explore how this modest bill designed to improve governmental transparency was killed:

Sadly, this is how the California Legislature works these days. Neither the overwhelming public support for governmental transparency nor the fact that 99 percent of Assembly members voted to make AB1479 law was enough to overcome the union veto.

Be sure to read the full piece by visiting the San Diego Union-Tribune website or picking up a copy of tomorrow’s paper!

 

California needs to put some heat in its sunshine law

In an exclusive op-ed for The Modesto Bee I discuss the importance of adding penalties to California’s Public Records Act. A slice:

When a government denies access to public records in violation of the CPRA, those requesting the information have only two choices: give up or sue.

Suing can take months and be very expensive. So, many simply give up.

As a result, some governments have become accustomed to violating the law in especially indefensible ways.

Another way agencies obstruct access is by charging excessive “production fees.”

That’s what happened in our recent request from the Southern Kern Unified School District. The district’s official response alleged that providing the requested records would take 35 hours of staff time, and thus demanded payment of a $1,150 programming fee before they would proceed.

The letter closed by directing all questions to the district’s legal counsel, Bill Hornback, suggesting this determination was made in consultation with an attorney.

We often hear from residents who get similar responses and feel they have no recourse and give up.

When the average citizen gets a letter from the government or its attorneys claiming something as fact, how many are comfortable disputing the claim?

Unable to fork over the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, those citizens are simply denied access to the information they are entitled to have.

Because Southern Kern Unified uses identical payroll software to a neighboring school district — who attested the information could be provided in under 5 minutes at no charge — we knew their $1,150 programming fee was bogus.

Despite telling Southern Kern this, no substantive response was provided until we finally threatened legal action three weeks later — at which point the information was provided in just a few hours at no cost.

Be sure to read the whole thing by clicking here!

Public records lawsuit filed against the City of Taft

Today, the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) filed a lawsuit in Kern County Superior Court against the City of Taft for refusing to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

The lawsuit stems from NPRI’s work on its TransparentCalifornia.com website — which publishes the pay and pension data of nearly 2.5 million California public employees from over 2,000 unique government agencies.

Taft is the only city in Kern County and one of only a handful of cities statewide that have consistently refused to provide the basic name and salary information requested. The City’s refusal to do so is a clear violation of state law, according to Transparent California research director Robert Fellner.

“The California Public Records Act is emphatic in its purpose to make public all records concerning governmental affairs. Taft’s refusal to provide an accounting of city employees and their taxpayer-funded salaries is a clear violation of the law.”

The City first justified its denial on the grounds that the information did not exist in the specific format requested, but when Transparent California relayed that the information need not be in any specific format, the City denied the request on the grounds that it was ‘nonspecific and unfocused.’

“Rather than focus on identifying records responsive to the purpose of our request — as state law mandates — the City appears intent on contriving any justification possible to keep its affairs shrouded in secrecy.”

The lawsuit asks the Court to compel Taft to comply with the CPRA and provide a copy of records documenting city employees’ name and salary information so that it may be published online at TransparentCalifornia.com.

TransparentCalifornia.com is used by millions of Californians each year and has received praise for its ability to successfully improve transparency in government by elected officials, government employees, the media, and concerned citizens alike.

For more information, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.

The impact of transparency

More great examples this week of the importance of transparency in government, all made possible as a result of California’s Public Records Act.

The Press-Enterprise continued their outstanding investigative reporting by following up on our finding that a Riverside utilities dispatcher tripled his salary to nearly $400,000 due to overtime.

In Riverside officials knew since 2015 about soaring overtime that exceeded some utility workers’ regular paythe paper dug deeper into the underlying issues, revealing that the practice caused at least some stuff to raise alarm bells years in advance of our report, which unfortunately went unheeded. A slice:

The utility’s large overtime tab in the electric operations division grew steadily beginning around 2012, but it became noticeable in 2015.

In June that year, the emails show that one dispatcher sent colleagues an email with the subject line, “Overtime and REST TIME in DANGER,” in which he proposed they all make suggestions on how to trim overtime costs before management did it for them.

One employee responded: “We have a contract. They have to honor it. … Don’t think stuff up for them.”

In March 2016, Electric Field Manager Ron Cox wrote to Utilities Principal Analyst Shelly Almgren to explain why the electric division had exceeded its overtime budget three months before the end of the fiscal year.

Read the full article here.

In other news, our CalPERS 2016 release received quite comprehensive coverage, as shown below:

Thanks to the tireless Jack Dean and his Pension Tsunami website for compiling the above!

All of this reporting then led to a fantastic Santa Cruz Sentinel editorial, California taxpayers pay high cost for public employee pensionswhich observed that:

… something is out of whack in our state, where government pensions, benefits and salaries are far beyond what most working people in the private sector could ever hope for.

A keen observation. While defenders of public pay extol their high pay as a virtue that others should seek to replicate, it is neither fair nor sustainable when that high pay comes at the expense of those earning much less.

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