Lathropgate and secrecy

The Manteca Bulletin calls Lathropgate “murky.”

Understandable.  

San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Sgt. Pat Withrow was given a letter of reprimand and suspended without pay for a day for failing to properly supervise his unit and for failing to submit his vacation slips before taking time off.

Those are the facts. The interpretation varies by political camp. Some say Withrow was running a scam down there. Withrow says his error was the nearly inevitable result of an excessively bureaucratic vacation request process.

It impossible to further clarify the matter solely because of the excessive secrecy accorded public employees, and public safety employees in particular.

The county attorney was wrong to deny a Public Records Act Request for Withrow’s file. Section 6254(c) of the Public Records Act implies that disclosure would not have been an unwarranted disclosure of personal information. Don’t take it from me. Take it from an expert in the Public Records Act, Jim Ewert, a staff counsel at the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association.

“There’s no more warranted invasion of personal privacy than someone who is accused of malfeasance, or other competency issues,  in their employment,” Ewert said.

Especially a candidate who would be the county’s top law enforcement official. A county counsel working with the public interest foremost in mind would have segregated the truly private information from public information and released that which is public.

So you’ve got the basic state laws protecting public employee personnel files, the Peace Officer’s Bill of Procedural Rights, and an excessively secretive county counsel.

And — let’s not forget — the Sheriff’s Office itself. If Withrow were guilty of a serious offense, that offense should have been disclosed to taxpayers at the time. Instead it was hushed up until it was politically convenient for one side to expose it.

You can take that as a criticism of Sheriff Steve Moore. I’ve got one for Withrow, too. Nobody forced him to promise he’d open his personnel file. The basic ethics of this story is that a candidate promised to do something and reneged. Any candidate that does that brings ink upon himself. That doesn’t make him gulty of anything else; reneging could be justified; you decide.

But the promise-breaking leads inquiry to the contents of the candidates’ personnel files – on which you cannot make a judgement because the information is withheld.

Public employees like the secrecy because most of the time it benefits them. If there are those among them now who chafe that the whole truth about Lathropgate has not come out, I say, you made your bed. Now lie in it.

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  • Blog Author

    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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