City Hall leaks: What is ‘confidential’ information?
The Sacramento City Council is eyeing a proposed rule stating that city employees could be fired for leaking confidential information. What are city officials considering ‘confidential’ information? And what do the definitions mean?
City Attorney Eileen Teichert has drafted language for the proposed rule. The City Council postponed a decision on the proposed rule Tuesday but is expected to take up the issue again at an upcoming meeting.
Leaked information from City Hall has become big news lately. In October, the Sacramento Bee used a leaked memo to report that the Community Development Department’s approval of 35 building permits in Natomas may have broken federal rules. The offices of the city attorney and city manager note in a recent report that the department broke rules set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Teichert’s proposal on leaks responds to a request from Councilman Robbie Waters. He had asked Teichert at the Jan. 25 City Council meeting to provide a legal definition for the term “confidentiality.” He said he wanted to see definitions for confidentiality that cover the term on moral and “punitive” level
Teichert defined “confidential information” in two ways in a Feb. 2 report. She wrote that information from closed sessions, in which legal matters are often discussed, are confidential. Information from Teichert is also confidential, the report states. Confidential information includes “oral or written communications by or from the city attorney, containing the city attorney’s legal opinions, advice, thoughts, mental impressions or conclusions that are given on behalf of the city,” the report states.
She noted there are types of information that don’t fall under “confidential information.” This applies to information that is “required by law to be reported out of closed session; authorized by the City Council to be disclosed; or otherwise authorized to be disclosed under the law.”
Teichert’s proposal states that an “employee disclosing or causing to be disclosed confidential information to any unauthorized person may be subject to appropriate disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
Holly Heyser, a journalist and the faculty advisor of Sacramento State University’s student newspaper, said that when laws are in place to define specific types of information as “confidential,” the argument for the public’s right to learn about the information falls flat.
“If the law authorizes the city to keep certain kinds of information confidential in the first place, then the battle for the public’s right to know has already been lost with respect to that information,” Heyser said in an e-mail Wednesday. “For the city to say there are consequences for employees who leak such information is just an extension of current law.”
However, Heyser noted that people can clash in their views of which kinds of information should be public.
“Where you have the potential for problems is in cases of disagreement over whether certain pieces of information actually can be (or should be) withheld from the public – and that is, of course, what usually impels some employees to leak information,” she wrote.
Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy has opposed the idea of a rule stating that an employee could be fired for leaking information. She said it would have a “chilling effect” on whistleblowers.
Read the Feb. 2 report on the proposed rule here.
Photo by Anthony Bento.
Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.