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Orange County

Court Bungled Data Requests, Observers Say

Asked for details of officials' travel expenses, county's judicial system erred, according to some.

October 27, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Officials with the union that represents hundreds of employees in the Orange County court system heard the rumors for years: Some judges and court executives travel around the country to conferences and other events, spending tens of thousands of public dollars in the process.

This summer, during a conflict about salary increases for court employees, the union raised the issue. It gave the court a written request under the California Public Records Act to inspect its travel expense records.

Such requests are common in many government offices -- but not in the courthouse. Rather than allowing union officials to review the records, the court offered to give them a report listing the court's total travel expenditures. This touched off a legal battle that has wound its way into a state appeals court and created headlines.

Court officials say the dispute is the result of a union ploy. In a letter filed with the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, where the case is being heard, the court accused the union of creating a controversy in order to obtain concessions during a salary dispute.

The court also noted that the Orange County Employees Assn. is facing a challenge from another union that wants to represent court employees and took the matter to an appeals court to demonstrate "it wasn't a pushover at the bargaining table."

But some outsiders say the court mishandled the situation, creating tension between administrators and employees and stirring up negative publicity.

"What you really encountered is a group of people unaccustomed to being held to a standard everyone else is accustomed to dealing with," said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine who has filed numerous public records requests as part of his research.

Court officials say they've done everything required under the law. Although the court initially offered the union only the total expense figures, it later agreed to provide copies of all its travel expense reports -- with employee credit card numbers, home addresses and Social Security numbers removed. The OCEA declined to pay the estimated $840 copying fee, so the matter now awaits review by an appeals court.

"Costs associated with retrieving these documents, redacting personal information from them and making and providing copies were very significant. Accordingly, the court requested that the cost of producing these documents be paid by OCEA," Alan Slater, the executive officer of the Orange County courts, said in a statement. "OCEA has declined to make this payment."

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition and an expert on the state public records law, said he believes the court has a right to remove personal information from the records but must allow the union to inspect the records without charge.

The court should bear any expense in removing the personal information because "the cost is something they created by the way they organized their information," Francke said.

After the union went public with its difficulty in obtaining the records, news organizations filed their own such requests. The court took more than three months to comply with The Times' request -- and court officials blacked out judges' names before providing the copies Oct. 17.

Court spokeswoman Carole Levitzky said the court was concerned about the judges' security and was not aware that The Times wanted to know the judges' names. When the paper specifically asked for the names Tuesday, the court provided them.

Jim Knox, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause, said he was surprised that the court removed the judges' names from the spending records it provided to The Times.

"It's clearly contrary to the principle that public officials can and should be held accountable for their expenses," Knox said.

Francke, of the California First Amendment Coalition, said courts frequently make mistakes when asked to provide their public records in part because they're not as familiar with requests as other agencies.

"The courts are just not used to being asked about their business practices, their spending, their allocation of funds," Francke said.

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