Government data open to public

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 28, 2011

By Scott Jenkins
How much do you make?
Itís a question that usually evokes the same response, spoken or unspoken: ěWhat business is it of yours?î
Well, when it comes to public employees ó the people who are paid with taxpayer dollars ó itís everybodyís business. Thatís why the Post decided to take a look at local public employeesí salaries for Sunshine Week.
Sunshine Week is an annual, national initiative during which news organizations gauge just how open governments are ó or how tight a grip some try to maintain on information that rightly belongs to public.
And the series that starts today in the Post is just as much about how transparent our government agencies are as it is about how much anyone working in government gets paid, though state law says that information is public and should be turned over to anyone who asks without question or quibble.
A glaring example of why thatís important is in the story of Bell, Calif., a city of 40,000 where the former city manager, mayor, City Council members and others are charged with living large on taxpayer dollars.
Prosecutors say the city manager in Bell falsified records to hide the fact that he received an annual compensation package of $1.5 million ó including an $800,000 salary that more than doubled the pay of Los Angeles Countyís manager ó and loaned himself and others millions from city coffers.
Four of the five City Council members got $100,000 a year to meet once a month, when the state recommends $400 a month for a town Bellís size. And the cityís police chief made $457,000 a year, twice as much as the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Bell city manager, mayor and others are facing criminal charges. The highly paid council members were removed by voters this past week in a recall referendum.
It all went unnoticed in part because no news organization regularly covered Bell, which lies about 10 miles from Los Angeles. It came to light last year after a Los Angeles Times investigation.
Post reporters found no evidence that anyone in Rowan or surrounding counties is making anywhere near the money Bell officials were raking in, nor were there ever any allegations that local officials were misspending taxpayersí money.
And, for the most part when requesting the salaries of public employees in Rowan and pay rates elsewhere for comparison, the Post found that government agencies provided the information readily, if not always quickly.
Some had already made the information more easily accessible.
Today, the Post looks at how the counties reacted to public information requests. Thatís followed by articles about Salisbury and other cities Monday, Rowan-Salisbury and other school systems Tuesday, Rowan-Cabarrus and other community colleges Wednesday, and economic development executives Thursday.

Rowan County posted employee salaries and wages online at the request of some county commissioners in January, and that information is now available to anyone who visits the county website.
When asked for the base salary and total compensation of their highest paid employees, county staff responded by e-mail the same day. The request was made initially to Carolyn Athey, clerk to the board, and Gary Page, county manager.
Human Resources Director Darlene Boling sent base salary information in about an hour, and Finance Director Leslie Heidrick sent additional compensation data two hours later. It took less than a day for them to reply to a second e-mailed request for information about the members and chair of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
Cabarrus, Davie, Davidson, Iredell and Stanly counties took a day or two to respond to each of the same requests. Stanly County staff sent the first set of information in about a half hour and the second in one day. Cabarrus County sent all of the data at once after two days.
The requests were made by e-mail after initial phone calls to county offices. Once they figured out who should handle the requests, staff members from all counties answered inquiries readily and sent the information without question.

When asked for salary information about their employees, Salisbury and other cities responded promptly and without complaint.
Salisbury provided a database of all employee salaries. Although City Manager David Treme says the city has no plans to post the database on its website as Rowan County did, anyone can access it on the Postís website.
Other than Salisbury, Lexington was the first city to respond to the Postís request. Kannapolis and Concord followed. Statesville took the longest because the cityís human resources director was out of town, but the Post still received the information within five days.
During the past week, staff in the Salisbury city managerís office fielded several additional requests for information and clarification.
In addition to other information, City Clerk Myra Heard provided a copy of Tremeís employment contract the day after it was requested, as well as a copy of minutes from the Jan. 18 meeting when City Council approved a bonus for Treme.
The search for information about Tremeís retirement benefit in relation to his bonus was more difficult.
The Post requested a calculation of Tremeís retirement benefit and asked whether the bonus would increase his monthly payment.
ěThe request for proposed retention bonus information is something we cannot provide to you because we have not calculated what effects it might have, and we do not know when he will actually retire or actually receive these bonuses,î Human Resources Director Zack Kyle said in an e-mail.
Retirement is calculated by the N.C. Retirement System, Kyle said.
The Post suggested three hypothetical retirement dates and bonus scenarios, but the city referred the paper to the state.
A spokesperson for the N.C. Department of State Treasurer said according to state law, any bonus paid upon retirement is not considered compensation for purposes of the retirement system.
Mayor Susan Kluttz on Friday said City Council intended to pay Treme a lump-sum bonus upon his retirement, not to increase his monthly retirement benefit.
In response to a request for information about his salary and other compensation, Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development, replied immediately and provided answers within four days.

Reaction was varied when the Post asked local school districts for salary information.
The Post requested the title, education, salary, supplement amount and hire date of every employee in the Rowan-Salisbury School District.
The school system provided the Post with that information in hard copy form 14 days later.
A request was made that day to have the records in digital form. A Post reporter was told that could take some time as each page would have to be scanned in by hand. After a formal e-mail request for the records to be sent digitally, a Post reporter received them the following day.
That same information was also requested for administrators, including central office staff and school principals, in Kannapolis City Schools, Cabarrus County Alamance-Burlington School System, Davidson County Schools and Iredell-Statesville Schools.
Each school system responded promptly after receiving the request, but the time that it took to get the information into the hands of the Post reporter varied greatly.
Kannapolis City submitted the requested reports within three days with Davidson and Statesville-Iredell fulfilling the request in 10 and 11 days, respectively.
Cabarrus took 20 days to provide the information. The school system mailed it rather than sending it electronically and provided more information than requested, including every employee rather than only administrators.
It took Alamance-Burlington the longest to get the information to a Post reporter at 23 days. The day the reporter received the information it did not include the names of each employee, only positions. The public information officer cited that names were not included in the initial request.
The Post also requested the supplement history, dating back five years, of each superintendent in the school systems listed above, as well as Wake County Public School System and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.
Rowan-Salisbury provided Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom’s contract within two days, but not without some questions and an e-mail from the superintendent containing an accusation the Post was ětrying to dig up something that is not there to sensationalize.î
The Post received the requested information from Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Iredell-Statesville within a day.
Davidson and Kannapolis schools got that information out to the Post in two and three days, respectively.
Alamance-Burlington supplied it in seven days and Cabarrus sent it in within 10 days.

The Post received the salaries of employees at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College through a Rowan County resident who requested the records.
The Post also requested the hire date, gross salary, deferred benefits, direct benefits and total gross compensation including salary and benefits for top employees at Davidson Community College, Mitchell Community College and Guilford-Technical Community College.
All three colleges sent the requested reports within three days.
Coming Monday:Comparing Salisbury employee salaries to other nearby cities.
Emily Ford, Sarah Campbell and Karissa Minn contributed to this report.