Editorial: Transparency best defense

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Post has received mixed reactions to The People’s Payroll, the stories published this week about local government salaries. Some people have been extremely interested in seeing how these tax dollars are spent. Others feel the Post invaded the privacy of government workers by posting salary databases online.
What has all this accomplished?
For starters, the stories and databases have made public information truly public.
It’s easy to say anyone can look up public salary information if they want to know, but can they? Officials with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and the Rowan-Salisbury School System said the Post’s request for salary databases posed a challenge because the information was not already compiled anywhere. Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom said a member of her staff had to spend more than 40 hours to pull together salary information for the schools’ 3,000-plus employees — at a time when the employee had many other things to do.
We appreciate the work that went into complying with our public records requests. The end result is a collection of databases at salisburypost.com/watchdog that the public can access whenever they want.
The People’s Payroll also found that local government positions are in line with other cities, counties and systems of comparable size. Every organization has some managers at the top with six-figure salaries, as they should. Their responsibilities, experience, education and expertise call for it — something a database cannot explain. In a couple of instances, boards have felt compelled to go the extra mile for their top administrators, as evidenced by Grissom’s guaranteed 2.5 percent annual raise, and City Manager David Treme’s retirement bonus of $35,000-$70,000, depending on when he retires.
A good explanation of how open discussion of and access to salary information benefits goverment comes from someone who is a government employee, Dr. Peter Gorman, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Last year when the Charlotte Observer requested salary information from the school system, Gorman sent employees a letter to prepare them for the public scrutiny and explain how it could be beneficial to the schools. The Observer posted the letter on its website. It says in part:
“We must provide this information to the media and the public because we are a public entity. All of us at CMS are paid with tax dollars. Therefore, our names, our salaries, some of our work history and our status with the district are all part of the public record. This is part of the landscape for every public employee ….
“The budget difficulties we are having, and the wide-ranging public discussion that they have engendered, are also a reminder of why transparency is always in our best interest. Rumor, innuendo or misinformation about our district, its employees and what we earn is not desirable. Transparency is our best defense and also serves an important public function: the public’s right to know how its tax money is spent.”