A&A: Accessing public employee timesheets

Q: I am seeking to obtain the time sheets (dates and hours worked) of a particular part-time city administrator. Are  time sheets public records that can be accessed to the extent that only the days worked are being requested, (NOT the days absent, days off, vacation/sick time)?

A: Under the PRA, “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics” is a public record and must be disclosed to the public upon request unless a provision of the PRA exempts it from disclosure. Gov’t Code Section 6252-6253.

There is an exemption for “personnel” records that public agencies routinely invoke when they believe a request seeks information pertaining to identifiable public officials or employees that is private or controversial. Gov’t Code § 6254(c).

However, this exemption — which was developed to protect intimate details of personal and family life, not official business judgments and relationships, Bakersfield City School Dist. v. Superior Court, 118 Cal. App. 4th 1041, 1045 (2004) — applies only to “personnel files … the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Gov’t Code Section 6245(c) (emphasis added).

As it seems you are aware, the California Supreme Court has held that the names and salaries of individual public employees are generally required to be made public. See International Federation of Processional Engineers v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. 4th 319, 331 (“[t]he ‘broadly based and widely accepted community norm’ applicable to government employee salary information is public disclosure”).

Similarly, the Supreme Court held that records containing the names, employing departments, and hiring and termination dates of California police officers included in the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training’s database did not come under any exemption of the Public Records Act. Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training v. Sup. Ct., 42 Cal. 4th 278, 284 (2007).

The Court remanded to the trial court to determine if any information relating to particular officers or categories of officers should be redacted from the records due to safety or efficacy (i.e., revelation of the identity of undercover officers) that might be jeopardized by disclosure. Id.

It does not seem that in the situation that you describe, there would be any privacy, safety or other concerns that would outweigh the public’s interest in seeing this individual’s time sheet.

As you seem to anticipate, the agency might argue that releasing the director’s time sheet could somehow reveal medical information since it would indicate how much sick time he is taking, or other personal information that might be revealed through time taken off for vacation, etc. Even if such information could be withheld under the PRA, the agency should redact the information and release the records in redacted form. Gov’t Code § 6253(a).

Please be aware that the Act also contains a “catch-all” exemption that agencies frequently invoke, which provides that an agency may withhold public records, even if no express exemption is applicable, if it can demonstrate “that on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.” Gov’t Code § 6255(a).

This exemption is broad and undefined, and is routinely invoked by public agencies in denying access to public records, but it often does not justify non-disclosure.

If you haven’t done so already, you may want to make a written request for the records you seek. Although not statutorily required (your other option would be to orally convey your records request or to simply make an in-person request to inspect the relevant records), a written request should result in a written response, and if that response is a denial of your request, then the response should set forth the basis for the denial.

The PRA also says that “upon a request for a copy of records, [the agency] shall, within 10 days from receipt of the request, determine whether the request, in whole or in part, seeks copies of disclosable public records in the possession of the agency and shall promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons therefor.” Gov’t Code § 6253(c).

In practice, agencies oftentimes latch onto the second provision, taking at least 10 days to respond to any request for copies.

You can find more information about the Public Records Act, including a sample request letter, at the First Amendment Coalition web site at https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/category/resources/access-to-records/.

Holme Roberts & Owen LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.