Opinion No. 94-903
Cite as: 78 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 103
Requested by: MEMBER OF THE CALIFORNIA SENATE
Opinion by: DANIEL E. LUNGREN, Attorney General
Clayton P. Roche, Deputy
THE HONORABLE NICHOLAS C. PETRIS, MEMBER OF THE CALIFORNIA SENATE, has requested an opinion on the following question:
Are the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of persons who have filed noise complaints concerning the operation of a city airport subject to public disclosure?
The names, addresses, and telephone numbers of persons who have filed noise complaints concerning the operation of a city airport are subject to public disclosure unless the city can establish in the particular circumstances that the public interest served by not making the information public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.
We are informed that a city has received a request for the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the 20 most frequent noise complainants regarding the city's airport operations. Such identification information has been disclosed at other public airports throughout the state, but the city believes that public disclosure may be inappropriate in the particular circumstances. Is the city required to disclose the information? We conclude that the information must be disclosed unless the city can establish that the public interest served by withholding the information clearly outweighs the public interest served in disclosure.
The California Public Records Act (Gov. Code, ss 6250-6268; "Act") generally requires state and local agencies to allow members of the public to inspect the records in their custody and obtain copies thereof. (ss 6250, 6252, 6253, 6257; Register Div. of Freedom Newspaper, Inc. v. County of Orange (1984) 158 Cal.App.3d 893, 901.) [FN 1] This public right of access, however, is not absolute. The Legislature has recognized that conflicting interests may arise which would require certain government records to remain confidential. (Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1325, 1338-1339; CBS, Inc. v. Block (1986) 42 Cal.3d 646, 651-652; Rogers v. Superior Court (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 469, 476; New York Times Co. v. Superior Court (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 1579, 1584-1585.) As stated in Black Panther Party v. Kehoe (1974) 42 Cal.App.3d 645, 653: "The objectives of the Public Records Act thus include preservation of islands of privacy upon the broad sea of enforced disclosure."
Also beyond the scope of this opinion is the issue of whether a noise complainant may have a duty to disclose to prospective buyers of his or her property the noise conditions existing with respect to an airport's operations. (Civ. Code, ss 1102.6, 2079.)
[FN 2] These exemptions are permissive, not mandatory. (CBS, Inc. v. Block, supra, 42 Cal.3d at 652; Black Panther Party v. Kehoe, supra, 42 Cal.App.3d at 656.) The Act grants a public agency discretionary authority to override the statutory exceptions. (ss 6253.1, 6254.)
In analyzing this language of section 6255, we may "look generally to expression of the state's high court in reasonably comparable areas." (See American Federation of States etc. Employees v. Regents of University of California (1978) 80 Cal.App.3d 913, 918.) The courts have examined the language of section 6255 in a variety of situations: American Civil Liberties Union Foundation v. Deukmejian (1982) 32 Cal.3d 440, 467 [Department of Justice index cards withheld as too burdensome]; Register Div. of Freedom Newspaper, Inc. v. County of Orange, supra, 158 Cal.App.3d at 908-910 [county case settlement documents ordered disclosed]; Braun v. City of Taft (1984) 154 Cal.App.3d 332, 345-346 [city employee's employment records ordered disclosed]; San Gabriel Tribune v. Superior Court (1983) 143 Cal.App.3d 762, 780 [city contractor's financial data ordered disclosed]; Eskaton Monterey Hospital v. Myers (1982) 134 Cal.App.3d 788, 792-794 [Medi-Cal audit manual withheld]; Johnson v. Winter (1982) 127 Cal.App.3d 435, 438-439 [employee applicants' personnel data given with assurance of confidentiality withheld]; American Federation of State etc. Employees v. Regent of University of California, supra, 80 Cal.App.3d at 915-919 [university audit report withheld]; Procunier v. Superior Court (1973) 35 Cal.App.3d 211 [prison building plans and security information withheld]; Yarnish v. Nelson (1972) 27 Cal.App.3d 893, 902 [certain prison records of inmates withheld]; Uribe v. Howie (1971) 19 Cal.App.3d 194, 205-206 [pesticide applicator's spray reports ordered disclosed].)
1. Factors in Favor of Disclosure
The courts have emphasized that the primary benefit of disclosing agency records to the public is to promote government accountability. The public and the media have a legitimate need to know whether government officials are performing their duties in a responsible manner. (Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 53 Cal.3d at 1344; CBS, Inc. v. Block, supra, 42 Cal.3d at 651, 656.)
Here, the public has a legitimate need to know whether city officials are properly operating the airport. Under a noise variance permit issued by the California Department of Transportation, the city is required to accept and respond to all airport noise complaints submitted to it. By obtaining the identities of the noise complainants, the public and media may ascertain whether city officials are performing their duties.
Another public interest in disclosure of the complainants' identities would be a potential reduction in the number of frivolous or malicious complaints, if any, filed with the city. The prospect of publicity might prevent unnecessary inquiries being made by city personnel investigating legitimate complaints.
A third benefit of disclosure would be the resolution of the complaints through direct contact between the complainants and the pilots (or others who seek the information). Both sides may be able to reach an understanding by mutually addressing their concerns without further city involvement.
Not only may non-complainants have an interest in knowing the identity of a complainant, so also would other complainants. A coordination of efforts by complainants as a group may result from disclosure of the identification information in question.
2. Factors in Favor of Nondisclosure
On the other hand, withholding the identification information would protect the privacy interests of the complainants and prevent possible intimidation and harassment. Withholding the information might thus result in a greater number of complaints being filed with the city. The filing of additional complaints might help the city to evaluate competing courses of action for operating the airport in the most responsible manner.
With respect to the complainants' privacy interests, we note that the information sought here would not subject the complainants to any "social stigma" as, for example, in American Civil Liberties Union Foundation v. Deukmejian, supra 32 Cal.3d at 449-450. (See CBS, Inc. v. Block, supra, 42 Cal.3d at 654.) It would not reveal "intimate information concerning [the person's] own or his family's medical or psychological history." (Id., at p. 655.) Rather, the complainants here have volunteered the information (see id., at p. 654; cf., New York Time Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 218 Cal.App.3d at 1585) on a subject of widespread interest to the community. Even though a right of privacy is guaranteed by the Constitution (Cal. Const., art I, s 1), the courts have generally determined that "the public and the press have a right to review the government's conduct of its business." (New York Times Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 218 Cal.App.3d at 1584.)
As for possible threats of intimidation and harassment by pilots or others, "[a] mere assertion of possible endangerment does not 'clearly outweigh' the public interest in access to these records." (CBS, Inc. v. Block, supra, 42 Cal.3d at 652.) In Block, the Los Angeles County Sheriff argued that releasing the requested information would "allow would-be attackers to more carefully plan their crime against licensees." (Ibid.) The court rejected such concerns as "conjectural at best." (Ibid.)
In New York Times Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 218 Cal.App.3d 1579, a water district claimed that disclosure of the names of excessive water users "could expose the individuals to verbal or physical harassment due to the strong currents of emotion on the subject of water overuse." (Id., at p. 1585.) The court ruled, however, that the district could not use such an excuse to shield itself "from public accountability, in deciding which customer is a chronic water abuser." (Ibid.) The district's fear of "outraged citizens" was too "speculative" and not supported by specific evidence that the water users would be subject "to infamy, opprobrium, or physical assault." (Id., at p. 1586.) [FN 4]
In Rogers v. Superior Court, supra, 19 Cal.App.4th 469, the court followed Times Mirror and held that city council members could withhold the identities of those persons consulted by telephone:
The Times Mirror decision did rely upon a federal case, Brockway v. Department of Air Force (8th Cir. 1975) 518 F.2d 1184, indicating that information which was "factual rather than advisory in nature" could be withheld if it sharply curtailed the deliberative process. (Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 53 Cal.3d at 1343.) [FN 5] In Brockway, Air Force staff reports concerning an airplane crash were withheld by the government. The Air Force personnel were assured confidentiality when making their witness statements so that no one would "fear that his statement will reveal some negligence or misconduct on his part, thereby exposing himself to disciplinary action or other adverse consequences." (Brockway v. Department of Air Force, supra, 518 F.2d at 1185.) The Air Force did, however, "furnish . . . the names and addresses of the witnesses whose statements were withheld . . . ." (Id., at p. 1186.)
We conclude that the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of persons who have filed noise complaints concerning the operations of a city airport are subject to public disclosure unless the city can establish in the particular circumstances that the public interest served by not making the information public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.