Ocean View schools trustee wins lawsuit against Huntington Beach over request to see employee job applications

An Orange County Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of an Ocean View School District trustee who sued the city of Huntington Beach over public records requests.

John Briscoe filed his lawsuit in January after the city denied him various city records, namely the job applications of employees working in trash disposal.

Briscoe had expressed concern about the qualifications of city employees in that job and wanted to see their work experience, education and any certifications.

City officials, however, contended that employee job applications are confidential after submitted and are exempt from public records requests.

Judge Frederick Horn disagreed, saying Huntington Beach violated state law in its denial. In his Nov. 15 ruling, he called the city’s arguments “unfounded” given that Briscoe sought only educational backgrounds, work experience and licensing, not overtly personal information.

Horn granted Briscoe the records, provided things such as home addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and driver’s license information are redacted.

Horn also ordered the city to pay Briscoe’s attorney fees.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Dec. 20 at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.

Briscoe — who said he hopes the case will stop “secret dirty hiring” at Huntington Beach City Hall — said in an email that he will request $85,000 toward his own attorney costs plus $160,000 he believes Huntington Beach spent responding to the suit.

City Attorney Michael Gates said in an email that he feels Horn’s decision “should be looked at again,” but he did not say whether the city will appeal.

“We represent the city very well in all legal matters, the vast majority of which are of much, much greater weight and import to the citizens of Huntington Beach than cases like these,” Gates said.

In his decision, Horn cited previous cases in saying that the “public and the press have a right to review the government’s conduct of its business. … The interest of society in ensuring accountability is particularly strong where the discretion is in a government official [and] is unfettered, and only a select few are granted the special privilege.”

Briscoe requested records related to trash dump inspectors in 2015 and 2016 after expressing concerns about their qualifications to staff the waste facility across from Oak View Elementary School.

In a letter to City Hall in December 2016, Briscoe’s attorney, Chad Morgan, argued that the city denying his client’s requests was “unwarranted because there is no invasion of personal privacy with respect to an employee’s qualifications for public employment.”

According to court records, city officials said the applications could contain “highly personal and potentially embarrassing information,” including medical history or financial information.

Huntington Beach’s human-resources director, Michele Warren, argued in a court filing that an applicant’s educational background and employment history should be confidential.

She said disclosing an application “so that the public may determine if the city should have hired someone is misleading because hiring decisions are made based on numerous factors, including competitive assessments, interviews, background checks and verbal communications. Disclosure of the application will not give any information as to whether the content of that application has been verified or is true.”

Warren also contended that exposing the applications to public review would have a “chilling effect” on future applicants or employees seeking a promotion or a new role.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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