Edtorial: The lessons of Bell, Ca.

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As Rowan County government takes the lead in publishing the salaries of its employees, those who questions whether this is a good idea should ask the residents of Bell, Ca.
A sensationalistic ó and sickening ó scandal erupted there last year when the Los Angeles Times began writing about the outrageously high salaries top-level municipal officials had bestowed upon themselves. The city manager was earning $800,000 a year. The assistant manager was pulling down $376,000. The police chief was being paid $457,000. Four of the cityís five council members were paying themselves nearly $100,000 a year.
Meanwhile, more than 15 percent of the cityís 40,000 residents were living in poverty.
It was one of the most outrageous instances of pillaging the public trust in recent memory. City officials were able to ride this gravy train for years primarily for two reasons: The lack of vigorous, watchdog local media and lack of forthrightness from city officials who werenít exactly eager to disclose such self-incriminating information.
Fortunately, the move to publish government salaries here isnít being driven by scandal or outrage. Commissioner Jim Sides wanted the county to post the salary database on the county website because it is a matter of public record. Itís relevant information for taxpayers, and putting the information online makes it available to any citizen who has access to a computer with an Internet connection.
The salaries of some higher-level employees such as the county manager, city manager, sheriff or police chief are already well publicized through the hiring and review process. While these officials may not welcome the scrutiny, theyíre used to it. For lower level employees, however, it may come as an unpleasant surprise to know that with the click of a computer mouse, a nosy neighbor ó or co-worker ó can see how much money they make. Even those who acknowledge itís public information might argue that posting it online makes it a little too public.
The response should be obvious. Taxpayers may not sign the checks, but they do provide the funds that pay public-sector salaries. They have a right to know where their money is going, and it shouldnít take a Bell-type scandal or a daunting public-records procedure to bring such information into view. Sides and the county officials who agreed with him deserve thanks for making a bold decision in support of transparency and accountability. Other government bodies should do the same.