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Hughson employees cry foul over hidden cameras

POSTED December 1, 2009 10:21 p.m.
Some Hughson city employees are concerned that their town leaders’ political posturing has turned into a violation of their privacy rights.
In July, city employees found two video cameras — one hidden in a desk clock — and heard strange clicking noises on the city hall phone lines which led some to believe the phone conversations were being recorded.
Acting on behalf of the Operation Engineers Local Union for the City of Hughson, Doug Gorman sent a letter of complaint to the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department and Hughson City Manager Joe Donabed. Shortly after the letter was sent, the cameras were removed, Gorman said.
Gorman stated that Donabed told him that the hidden cameras, phone tapping and recording devices were there for a criminal investigation being conducted by the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, of which no Hughson employees were involved in.
“I can only confirm that there is an on-going investigation,” said Sheriff Adam Christianson when asked about the phone taps and hidden cameras at Hughson City Hall. “Because it is an on-going criminal investigation, I can’t comment on anything further.”
Hughson Police Chief Janet Rasmussen also said she could not comment on the recording equipment in city hall due to an on-going investigation.
According to Turlock attorney Axel Gomez, if there was an expectation of privacy, then there either needs to be a court order or permission from the person for an audio or video recording to be legal.
City hall is technically a public place, as it is owned by the citizens of Hughson, Gomez said. In the lobby there is a low expectancy of privacy. The legality of the situation depends on the expected privacy of the employees, he said.
“Typically, if you are a regular employee, you expect a certain level of privacy,” he said. “If you work in a casino or a bank, you expect to have little privacy and you are aware of the cameras recording you.”
In an office, there is an expected level of privacy and the employee should be notified, Gomez said.
“It all depends on where the cameras were located and the expectation of privacy in that area,” he said.
With the phone tapping, permission from the person being recorded or a court order is required, Gomez said.
To his knowledge, there were at least two cameras placed in city hall, said Gorman. One was put in the roof facing down on the lobby. The other one was in a desk clock placed on a file cabinet in the working area of the building department. Gorman said he inspected the clock and found a red lens that appeared to be some type of video recording.
On July 24, Gorman e-mailed Donabed stating that the union would not tolerate the audio recording in city hall without the employees’ knowledge as he stated it is a criminal violation of the California Penal Code.
“I would also demand that all audio and video recording devises be removed from the workplace, until both parties have come to an agreement, or attempted to resolve this issue after a reasonable amount of time. The City has until 5 p.m. on Monday, July 27, 2009, to remove the above items,” Gorman wrote in his e-mail to Donabed.
Donabed responded to Gorman’s e-mail with “Doug thank you for your letter. After our meeting this morning I contacted the Sheriff’s Department and all was removed this afternoon.”
“When we complained, Chief Rasmussen immediately removed the cameras,” Gorman said. “That made me believe that there wasn’t a criminal case going on.
“I believe they thought the city employees were giving the city council members information and that’s why there were hidden cameras,” Gorman said. “I have no idea of a criminal case going on and if so, there would have to be a court order and it has not been found.”
To contact Maegan Martens, e-mail mmartens@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.


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