Disclosing Public Employee Pay Troubles Some Officials

A new GOVERNING survey finds some public officials do not think their compensation should be public as governments work to make the information more available.
by | April 18, 2012

Many public officials are uncomfortable with subjecting their compensation to scrutiny as governments and transparency groups work to open the information to the public, a new Governing survey finds.

Nearly 30 percent of state and local government officials say their pay should not be considered part of the public record, while half would react negatively to names and salaries posted online. Overall, the results show public employees generally favor disclosing basic compensation information, but many feel they should not be identified by name.

“There is an underlying tension here. It’s between people’s desire for privacy and the public’s right to know,” said Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation.

Governing randomly surveyed more than 200 senior state and local officials across the county through its online community, Governing Exchange. Survey participants included only officials and administrators, which are not representative of all government workers.

The findings come as state and local governments push transparency initiatives aimed at making public information more readily available.

With the Internet, uncovering many public employees’ compensation is only a few mouse-clicks away. A Governing review of state government websites found about half now maintain searchable compensation databases. Newspapers and watchdog groups have also contributed, launching their own public employee pay websites.

About 57 percent of survey respondents reported their salary information was posted online.

Kerry Korpi, director of research and collective bargaining for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, argued salary databases are “unneeded.”

“Certainly, information about payroll overall, and how much particular jobs pay, is useful, and available virtually everywhere,” Korpi said. “But it’s an unwarranted invasion of privacy to associate names with a specific salary for rank-and-file employees.”

About 41 percent of survey respondents said citizens should not be able to find their specific compensation with names listed online.

Knowing what specific rank-and-file workers are paid serves little policy purpose, Korpi said. Instead, she said governments should focus efforts on providing more detailed information on contracts, grants and other areas of spending.

“It seems like a custodian who works for a city is being held to different standard than a custodian who works for a contractor,” Korpi said.

Withholding salary information for rank-and-file workers runs contrary to state open records laws. Typically, only corrections officers and other positions whose disclosure would pose a security risk are exempt.

“When you take on a public role, that’s just the nature of the business that all of this info becomes publically available,” Schuman said.

Survey Question: My compensation should be considered part of the public record.

But working for the government doesn’t entirely open a person’s life for public view. Schuman and other transparency advocates generally do not advocate posting public employees' home phone numbers, medical records and other personal information.

Curbing Corruption

Employee compensation records allow for public oversight of hiring practices and serve as a valuable resource for managers.

Schuman said the information also acts as a deterrent to government corruption.

Eight city officials in Bell, Calif., were charged with misappropriating public funds in 2010 after a series of reports revealed they received extravagantly large salaries. Robert Rizzo, Bell’s former city manager, racked up an annual salary of nearly $800,000, while his assistant earned $376,000.

Residents of the low-income Los Angeles suburb were outraged, and the story quickly gained national attention.

In wake of the scandal, California Controller John Chiang issued an order directing all cities, counties and special districts to report compensation information. More than 85 percent of local governments complied with the order and provided salary data. Chiang’s office posted this information, along with pay for state and university employees, in a searchable online database.

Now, citizens can track down pay information for most of the state’s government entities.

“It’s been used by everyone from your everyday voter to academic researcher to media taking a look at how much is being paid for services provided,” said controller's office spokesman Jacob Roper.

Rather than list exact salaries for job titles, the database contains minimum and maximum salaries, along with wages from W-2 forms. The W-2 amounts include stipends, overtime and other pay often not accounted for in base salaries.

But names are not listed in California’s database, Roper said, because the state cannot verify the unaudited records.

The majority of state and local officials surveyed said salaries and job titles should be posted online, without identifying employees by name.

Survey Question: Which best describes your opinion of media organizations and other groups posting public salary information online?

State Transparency Initiatives

Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky and New Hampshire are among states maintaining databases identifying specific employee compensation.

New Hampshire’s TransparentNH database provides multiple search options, with payroll figures dating back to 2009. The state Department of Administrative Services manages the site, launched in late 2010.

Joe Bouchard, the department’s assistant commissioner, said the state’s top earners and employees with significant overtime generate the most buzz when the database is updated.

More importantly, the information has sparked a dialogue among lawmakers in addressing policy concerns. When data showed some corrections officers received significant overtime pay, officials began discussing whether to fill more vacancies, Bouchard said.

“The intent was that it would answer as many questions as possible,” Bouchard said.

The department fielded a small number of complaints when the data was initially published, but has not since encountered many objections, Bouchard said.

The 'Creepiness' Factor

Some government workers are unaware their pay is subject to public scrutiny. Teachers and entry-level employees, for instance, rarely occupy the public spotlight.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said those closer to managing taxpayer dollars are more sensitive to the public’s need for accountability. The Reporters Committee advocates for transparency issues and assists journalists, who often face obstacles in prying employee records from public agencies.

For many working in government, seeing their names and salaries displayed online is uncomfortable. Although most understand employment records are a matter of public record, asking whether they like that the information is disclosed to the public elicits a different response.

“While the balance needs to ultimately shift toward transparency, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think some might be creeped out by this,” Dalglish said.

Dalglish suspects there may also be a generational gap in public employee attitudes. Older, more experienced workers were often taught it was disrespectful to ask a colleague about their pay, while younger people are more used to enjoying seemingly infinite amounts of information at their fingertips.

“Anyone who knows how to spell your name and use Google can see it,” Dalglish said. “That makes everyone a far more public person.”

Survey Question: I would react negatively to my name and salary information being posted for the public to view online.

View the complete survey results and methodology


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