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Battle for Pacific Grove Records Is an Internal Squabble

Suspecting abuse, a council member has sued to get data on city employees' overtime.

September 21, 2003|Irwin Speizer | Special to The Times

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — Susan Goldbeck hunts for scandal behind the pink walls of City Hall in this seaside town on the Monterey Peninsula.

But Goldbeck is not a typical gadfly trying to pry information out of local government. She holds a seat on the seven-member Pacific Grove City Council.

And when the city balked at her request for employee overtime records, she filed a lawsuit to get them under the California Public Records Act.

Terry Franke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento, said it is very rare for a member of a governing board to file a lawsuit under the Public Records Act.

He described the response to Goldbeck's request as "silly," at a minimum.

About a week after the suit was filed, the city turned over more than 2,000 overtime slips, each one carefully snipped to cut out information that might identify an individual city employee. The cuts were made, city officials say, to protect the personal privacy of city employees. Goldbeck said the documents had been so disfigured that they were worthless and she planned to continue pressing her lawsuit.

"I simply can't understand why there is so much reluctance to produce this stuff," Goldbeck said. "It's not like it's top secret, FBI stuff."

Goldbeck, 55, is no novice at City Hall in this town of 15,000. An attorney, she also ran a local weekly newspaper that crusaded against city policies and actions. She won a seat on the City Council last November as a candidate who promised to take on what she calls the "good old boy" network.

Goldbeck has challenged city plans to build a new clubhouse at the municipal golf course, as well as the deeply discounted golf fees that residents pay and the free golf for members of city government committees. She raised questions about the use of city cars.

She has accused the mayor and members of the council of conspiring to have Police Chief Scott Miller fired in May. (The ousted chief is pursuing his own wrongful termination claim against the city.) She regularly finds herself on the losing end of 6-1 council votes.

"Either Susan is all right or the six of us are all wrong," said Mayor Morris G. "Morrie" Fisher. "I have never run across somebody quite like Susan Goldbeck. She looks at everything like there is a conspiracy going on."

The fight over public records has gained widespread attention around the Monterey Peninsula. Goldbeck said her quest began when a resident told her about encountering a city employee picking up beachside trash one Saturday. The employee was working overtime. Why, the resident wondered, did the city need to pay an employee overtime to pick up trash?

Goldbeck said she agreed to look into it. She soon expanded her hunt to the Fire Department, where she said she heard about possible overtime abuses.

In March, she asked to see all employee overtime records for 2002. The city attorney said that the pay records of individual city employees were confidential, that their disclosure might violate personal privacy, and that the task would require an inordinate amount of work to complete. The council agreed, voting not to turn over the records. One irate council member compared her tactics to the Spanish Inquisition.

But instead of the usual 6-1 vote, Goldbeck lost by 5-2. Fisher voted with Goldbeck to supply the records. Goldbeck said that Fisher is an astute politician who picked up on public sentiment regarding the issue.

"I think the other members of the council weren't too happy with Morrie," she said. "He looked good; I looked good; they didn't look too good."

Fisher said he sided with Goldbeck simply because he saw no compelling argument for keeping the records private. He also figured that Goldbeck would find nothing unusual in the records.

"In all my 23 years on the council, I have never thought overtime was a problem," Fisher said.

Goldbeck modified her request, saying she would accept the records with employees' names blocked out. She got an update in June from the city, saying that a two-inch-thick pile of documents was being prepared.

After two more months passed, Goldbeck said, she got fed up with the delay and sued. She said it was no coincidence that the city promptly turned over the pile of overtime slips. But the heavily edited documents, cut rather than blacked out with a marker, raised new questions for her. Goldbeck said she received tips that some overtime slips had been doctored after her request. Because so much of each document had been cut out, she had no way of checking up, she said.

The public records fight brought Goldbeck considerable publicity, including what she described as a wave of positive feedback from area residents. Encouraged, she decided to launch a bid for higher office. This month, she announced her candidacy for the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. The election is in March. She does not have to resign her city post to run, and she said she plans to continue pressing her lawsuit.

"The taxpayers are pretty consistently with me on this one," Goldbeck said. "It is an issue that resonates with taxpayers."

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