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Posted at 4:17 PM ET, 02/ 2/2011

Don't detach names from government salaries

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

What's more fun than a database where you can look up how much your school superintendent is paid or what that annoyingly gruff DMV worker down the street makes?

On the other hand, it's not that much fun realizing that the information resources director at a certain state agency who recently refused to answer my questions makes more than double my salary.

Either way, it's difficult to think of a journalist or a citizen interested in government transparency who would be okay with a ban on publishing the names of employees next to their compensation information.

And yet that's what state Sen. Steve Martin (R) is trying to do in a bill that was sent to the FOIA Advisory Council on Tuesday for review. Martin says it's too embarrassing for rank-and-file employees to have their earnings exposed, potentially subjecting them to public humiliation.

"It’s kind of like one of these things, you say, oooo, I didn’t want to see that, I don’t want to know what my neighbor makes, I don’t want to know what my fellow choir member makes," Martin told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday.

Maybe most people have a much stronger sense of privacy than I do, but I'd be surprised if that's the typical reaction of taxpaying citizens whose jobs make the jobs of government employees possible.

Sensitive to the push-back against his bill, Martin is trying to soften the ban by exempting elected officials and governor appointees. But that assumes that those are the only people who may earn more than they should. Workers often receive lots of additional compensation beyond their salaries in the form of overtime, bonuses, expense reimbursements and unvouchered expense payments. Without names attached to those earnings, it would be difficult to track total payments to a specific employee.

It would also make databases like the one launched by the Richmond Times-Dispatch illegal. The newspaper made it easy to search for and view the salaries and names of all employees paid with public dollars, if they're above the $42,648 average. It chose not to publish the salaries below that average -- but the point is that it could have.

I agree with Sen. Martin that most government employees don't want their compensation to be publicly available. I wouldn't, if I were in their shoes. But that's the price you pay to work for the government -- and receive a guaranteed pension, I might add.

Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | February 2, 2011; 4:17 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, economy  
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Just because you take a government job doesn't mean you give up all privacy related to that job. It seems reasonable for the public to know the salaries of elected officials, and the salary ranges for government positions/pay grades, and COLAs and average merit raises. But why should the public be entitled to know that Joe Smith, the public librarian, earns $45,234.01 for his public position?

Posted by: sheckycat | February 3, 2011 1:28 AM | Report abuse

Thoroughly agree with scheckycat.

Sorry Ms. Cunningham, but I completely disagree with your position.

"Maybe most people have a much stronger sense of privacy than I do, but I'd be surprised if that's the typical reaction of taxpaying citizens whose jobs make the jobs of government employees possible."

"taxpaying citizens" work in these government jobs - you do realize that right? Or is this just "bag on federal workers because private industry brought our nation to the edge of bankruptcy and we can't do anything about it but complain about government" mantra?

Posted by: Greent | February 3, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Another problem is that people see the higher salaries and automatically assume that they aren't deserved. They may not be aware that the employee has served for over 30 years and has additional responsibilities associated with their job.

I remember back in the early 90's when the Montgomery Journal would print the salaries and names of school system employees. We were at a family dinner at the in-laws and some relatives were taking great pleasure in looking up people they knew and commenting that they surely didn't deserve their salaries for various reasons totally unrelated to their jobs.

And as Greent says above--public employees are taxpayers too. Why should budget shortfalls be made up by cuts to our pay and benefits alone?

Posted by: musiclady | February 3, 2011 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Some reporters can really get full of themselves. I retired from a local government position (professional firefighter) several years ago, and for many of those years I saw my name and salary posted in a local newspaper which somehow saw itself as being on a high moral horse for doing so.

But the fact that it was little more than a cheap thrill for the reporters and editors of that paper was demonstrated by the fact that the figure was never accurate. For example, it never reflected the overtime I might have received during the year. But more importantly, it didn't reflect that my salary was earned by more than 30 years of service to the people of that jurisdiction. Nor did it mention that many of those employees didn't get "snow days" -- they were expected to be at work, on time, even if there was two feet of snow on the ground. All it showed was names and dollars.

I believe that the public has the right to know what public employees are being paid. And that can be adequately met by publishing the salary ranges for given positions. A police lieutenant earns between a and b dollars a year, a fire department captain earns between x and y dollars a year, etc. Unless there is some specific reason to suspect that some individual is engaged in wrongdoing, it is completely unnecessary to violate the privacy of all public employees in this way simply because they have a government job.

Perhaps if the Post decided to publish the compensation of all of its employees -- after all, the subscribers paying for the paper certainly have a right to know -- Ms. Cunningham might reconsider her cavalier attitude toward privacy.

Posted by: alert4jsw | February 6, 2011 5:27 PM | Report abuse

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