As colleges push employees to retire early, student journalists find documents elusive

State and federal employees have long been held to a different level of scrutiny than workers in the private sector.

Their salaries and benefits come from taxpayer dollars, and their performance is a matter of concern for the public they serve.

There is sometimes an uncertain line between employees’ personal privacy and proper oversight for the metaphorical shareholders.

And while some distinctions have already been decided by the courts, public institutions or legislatures, journalists and government watchdogs sometimes have to push agencies to reveal the information the public is entitled to.

In California and Oklahoma, student journalists are pushing for lists of retired and soon-to-retire employees, but their colleges have denied their requests, citing personal privacy.

At East Los Angeles College, The Campus News requested a list of soon-to-retire faculty to write features and do a spread about the departing professors, but the request was denied.

Campus counsel cited the California Public Records Act as cause for denial, but did not mention what specific part of it.

Section 6254(c) of the CPRA prohibits disclosure of “personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

However, the courts have ruled that the identity of public employees up for retirement or retiring do not constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, nor do they garner protection from the balancing test between the public’s need for disclosure and the individual’s need for privacy.

In 2010, a superior court in Sacramento found that names and pension information of all public employee retirees are public record, after The Sacramento Bee and the First Amendment Coalition requested documents from the Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal also ruled that the names of public employees who have retired are public, as are the amount of benefits they receive.

The court said, “The disclosure of pension information provides information about the government’s management of public [funds], in which the public has a legitimate interest. Pension benefits are not exclusively related to personal financial decisions of former employees.”

Section 6254.8 of the CPRA also explicitly says that public employee employment contracts are public records.

Megan Razzetti, the editor-in-chief of The Campus News, said she had her staff call each department to try to get names for features for the special issue. She said she felt that, without a complete and comprehensive list, readers might have interpreted the selective inclusion of certain professors in the coverage to be favoritism, which the staff tried to clarify with a front-page editorial.

According to the editorial, the university’s Academic Senate was also denied the list, which may hinder the distribution of a small token — a crystal apple for each retiree — of the university’s appreciation.

“It’s really confusing that they would do that, especially to Academic Senate as well,” Razzetti said. “We‘re not trying to expose how much they make or anything like that. We were just trying to do something nice for our faculty.”

Last year, the University of Oklahoma provided a list of employees eligible for a voluntary early retirement program to The Oklahoma Daily. This year, it denied The Daily’s request, citing Oklahoma Statute §51-24A.7(A)(2), which allows agencies to withhold records that would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

In its denial, the university mentioned public disapproval with the student newspaper’s decision to publish the list of names provided by the university last year.

One letter to the editor The Daily published said that employees were faced with a tough decision, and the published list could have been used to criticize or pressure the employees who refused early retirement.

The volunteer program had been implemented to save the university money, and was well received by the campus community.

According to The Daily, the list of employees is not just important for determining how much money the program will save the school, but with a hiring freeze in place at OU, the names will reveal if certain departments could see major decreases in faculty. The Daily reports that, last year, 146 of the 386 eligible employees accepted early retirement. This year there are 425 eligible employees.

The Daily’s Editor-in-Chief Dana Branham said that students have a right to know if professors whose classes they signed up for will be leaving and which departments could lose experts in certain topics or many faculty members at once.

“The university is denying us records because of what they are anticipating that we might do with them, which is not how the law works,” Branham said.

Branham said she was not sure if the matter would go to court since her advisers told her it would ultimately be on her or another editor to pursue legal action.