In determining whether a document is a personnel record that may be exempt from public disclosure, the state Supreme Court in October looked not to the document's placement in a personnel file but to the document's content.
A record must pertain to an individual employee and be of a kind normally maintained in a personnel file for it to be exempt under the public records law. A report about an investigation into allegations of stealing by school employees is not a personnel record that the exemption was intended to protect.
During the middle of 1993, officials with a Portland school district began to suspect several district employees of stealing and misappropriating school property. An ensuing investigation - and subsequent report by the school district's internal police department - led to the firing or retirement of at least three district employees, including a high school principal and vice principal. The high school principal announced his retirement to his staff through a letter, which was quoted in The (Portland) Oregonian by reporter Erin Hoover Schraw.
The newspaper then made a request under the open records law for all records from the school police investigation. The district initially denied the request, stating the documents were personnel records that could be kept secret under an exemption to the state's open records law. It later released a copy of the principal's resignation letter because most of its contents already had been publicly disclosed, but the school continued to withhold the report on its internal investigation.
In late 1993, the newspaper filed suit in state court for access to the report. The trial court and an intermediate appellate court both decided in favor of the newspaper. The school district appealed to the state Supreme Court in Salem and ultimately spent $88,000 in public money defending the suit, according to figures reported in the Oregonian.
The school district maintained in a brief filed with the Supreme Court that the report was a personnel record covered by an exemption to the open records law. Even though the public may have an interest in knowing about theft at the public schools, releasing the report would violate the personal privacy of the employees who had been investigated, the school district argued.
But in its Supreme Court briefs, the newspaper urged the court to recognize that when it comes to theft of public resources by government employees, the public's right to know trumps the employees' privacy rights. Allowing the school district to hide incriminating or embarrassing information simply …