A&A: Can I reqest public staff time cards?

Q: My community has a special water district. There is a manager and a five-person elected board. Would the manager’s time-card be public information? Also, the board has not approved the minutes for months. Is there a time limit to approve minutes from meetings?

A: Under the California Public Records Act, public records, including “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,” Gov’t Code § 6252(e), are presumed to be open to the public and must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.

One of the exemptions under the Act, which the water district might try to assert, is for “personnel” records. Gov’t Code § 6254(c). This exemption is routinely invoked when a public agency believes a request seeks information pertaining to identifiable public officials or employees that is private or controversial.

However, this exemption 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).

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”).

Likewise, the California Court of Appeal has held that “information as to the education, training, experience, awards, previous positions and publications of [the employee] … is routinely presented in both professional and social settings, is relatively innocuous and implicates no applicable privacy or public policy exemption.” Eskaton Monterey Hospital v. Myers, 134 Cal. App. 3d 788, 794 (1982).

Thus, it is probable that the manager’s time card, which provides the public with insight into the workings of government, should be required to be disclosed under the Act.

Please also be aware that the Act contains a “catch-all” exemption that agencies frequently attempt to 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 often does not justify non-disclosure.

If the water district argues that disclosure of the manager’s time card is exempt under either of these provisions, or any other provision in the Act, be sure to request that the district explain its decision in writing. This will help you in case you decide to bring legal action against the district to compel disclosure of the time card.

If you haven’t already done so, you may want to submit a written request for the records that you seek to the water district. You can find additional information regarding the Public Records Act, including sample request letters, on the FAC’s website here: https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/category/resources/access-to-records/

As to your second question regarding minutes approval, this is likely something that is governed by the water district’s bylaws. You may want to review the bylaws to see if there are any special rules relating to the approval of minutes.