(left to right) Judges Alex McDonald, Gilbert Nares and James McIntyre of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego hear oral arguments from inewsource and North County Transit District counsels on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. Photo by Brad Racino/inewsource.
(left to right) Judges Alex McDonald, Gilbert Nares and James McIntyre of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego hear oral arguments from inewsource and North County Transit District counsels on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. Photo by Brad Racino/inewsource.

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.

inewsource executive director Lorie Hearn 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.

North County Transit District’s counsel, Steven Boehmer, argues against the release of a management study in San Diego’s Fourth District Court of Appeals on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. inewsource sued the transportation agency in 2014 on the grounds that the study, which assessed the leadership capabilities of NCTD’s top managers and was conducted with taxpayer funds, is a public record that should be released. Photo by Brad Racino/inewsource.

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.”

Click here to read the judge’s ruling.

The court of appeal 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 argument 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 who 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 intended to appeal it.

Joe Yerardi is a freelance data journalist for inewsource, where he worked between 2013 and 2016 as an investigative reporter and data specialist. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email joe.yerardi@gmail.com.

5 replies on “Court orders the North County Transit District to turn over records after inewsource lawsuit”

  1. A victory? Hardly. The inewsource petition covered the entire results of a, “Leadership Assessment Program.” The court agreed to allow inewsource to receive the “talent management summary” on page two of the presumably voluminous documents and denied inewsource’s petition “in all other respects.” The court also denied inewsource’s request for attorneys fees.

    In my view it is not in the best interests of the public that this sort of review be made public. However dysfunctional inewsource or others may consider this organization to be, the organization was proactive enough to conduct a candid internal review of its administrative staff in an apparent effort to address deficiencies and make improvements. To be effective, these sorts of reviews depend upon confidentiality so that internal respondents feel safe to be candid. Indeed, as noted in the court ruling, the human resources director told the respondents the results would be confidential. It reflects well upon the organization, in my view, that they were willing and interested to undertake this effort and this is the sort of effort to improve that should be encouraged. Disclosure creates a chilling effect on self-improvement efforts.

  2. Oh. Blah. You must be one of those reviewed. Or very close to one to empathize so completely with upper dysfunctional management at NCTD.

  3. Whoa Nelly: (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) You are completely incorrect. I have no connection with NCTD, nor do I have an opinion about them. I do not empathize with them. I believe that good and bad organizations can benefit by self-assessment and actions like this discourage same.

  4. I knew people who worked at NCTD. It was a culture of bullying and harassment. One could only characterize the place as a hostile work environment. When my friends worked there Dave Roberts was on the NCTD Board along with Bill Horn both now county commissioners. Women were berated and older women and males we constantly picked on.

    People with perfect annual appraisals were let go if they stood up for those being attacked.

    The board and CEO had a policy to get rid of anyone with Calpers pension contribution by the agency.

    A smart lawyer would meet with and seek out ex employees and file a class action against the board, CEO and agency for a Rico based approach to end Calpers funded pensions at NCTD.

    I doubt they would loose and the attorney would make a boatload of money.

    The board is very corrupt and NCTD should be combined into Sandag to save the taxpayers money.

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