Court Rules North County Transit District Must Release Records
A state appellate court has concluded that the summary of an assessment of senior managers at the North County Transit District should be released for public review.
The decision issued Monday by three justices of the 4th District Court of Appeal was a loss for NCTD, which had argued the entire assessment of 13 top managers was a confidential personnel document. inewsource sued the district in March 2014, contending the full report should be released because the public’s interest in it outweighed privacy issues.
NCTD runs the county’s Coaster, Breeze, Sprinter and Lift transit services, and uses San Diego County’s tax base to support its operations. For the past two years, inewsource has published a series of stories in an ongoing investigation detailing the district’s holes in security, misallocation of funding, questionable contracting, high employee turnover, lawsuits, audits and peer criticism.
inewsource requested the management assessment under the California Public Records Act after a source tipped off a reporter to its existence. The source claimed the report validated criticisms of leadership deficiencies at NCTD detailed in previous inewsource reporting.
Lorie Hearn, executive director of inewsource, cast the decision as a victory for taxpayers.
“We are gratified that the court agreed that the public should be allowed to see at least part of the leadership assessment. It is important that the North County Transit District, which serves millions of riders each year, is held accountable to the taxpayers,” Hearn said.
NCTD paid UCSD’s Rady School of Management $31,200 to conduct a “Leadership Assessment Program” of its managers in 2014. The resulting report detailed strengths and weaknesses of each manager.
In its unanimous ruling, the three appellate justices determined that the entire report, including the talent management summary, fell under the description of “personnel or similar files.” The court agreed with NCTD that the individual assessments should not be released because they are personnel evaluations. However, it said that unlike the individual evaluations, the summary did not present “danger of embarrassment or pain to individual employees” because the information contained within it could not be tied to any individual employee.
Noting that the assessment was performed with public funds, the opinion, written by Justice Gilbert Nares, said the public “has an interest in knowing what was purchased with those funds, whether the Program was worth what the District spent, and whether the Program provided utility to the District…
“The public also has an interest in knowing how the District identifies professional development opportunities and evaluates its senior staff, which were in part purposes of the Program. The Rady documents would plainly shed light on the District's activities in these ways.”
The court said, “The Rady documents also shed light on the District's ability to perform its primary duty: developing and operating mass transit systems in San Diego County.”
The appeal court's decision overturns a ruling by Superior Court Judge Joan M. Lewis, who contended the documents should not be made public because they were “personnel, medical, or similar files” and that “...the records would not contribute to the public’s understanding of government…”
During oral arguments on April 12, the appellate justices foreshadowed their ruling.
At several points Justice Nares said he didn’t see a problem with making the assessment summary — the section without names — public. He acknowledged that subordinates would speculate about which manager received which rating, “but it will be only speculation.”
NCTD lawyer Steven Boehmer contended that releasing any part of the evaluation “will have a chilling effect” on NCTD and other public agencies that evaluate their managers and tell them the results will be confidential.
Justice James McIntyre said at the hearing that he thought releasing the documents would be of some benefit to the public.
“If you need improvement in this many categories,” he said, looking at the study’s results, “you must not be a top rate or even a medium rate organization.”
And if you disagree, he suggested, “I don’t know what planet you’re on.”
Commenting on the decision Monday, attorney Guylyn Cummins, who represented inewsource, said, “We believe these battles are important to fight because the management team at NCTD has made some management decisions that have cost the taxpayers a lot of money.”
The North County Transit District and attorney Boehmer did not return calls seeking comment on the ruling and whether the agency would appeal it.