Public salaries go with territory

Red Wing Republican Eagle
Jan. 18, 1990

Joe Johnson’s thoughtful letter on this page set the editors to scratching their heads. Is it truly in the public interest to list the salaries of local government workers by name?

Johnson says he expects a certain “nakedness” as a city employee, but can’t the Republican Eagle’s quest for public information be curbed at least a little in the interest of the privacy of individuals? Why not, for example, list the salary of the city chemist by position alone, eliminating the name of the job-holder?

Moreover, shouldn’t the R-E be consistent and print the salaries of every public employee — union as well as non-union — at all levels of government?

We don’t think the public is served by printing only titles and salaries. Secondly, the ideal situation would be to print all salaries. Both those are quick answers, and Johnson’s letter deserves a more thorough exploration. Withholding names from the positions is at cross-purposes with our mission to provide information. In our book, that’s nearly as bad as giving misinformation.

There are other complexities, such as being selective in whom we identify. We believe most people — except the individuals themselves — agree certain salaries should be published. For the city, the obvious ones include the council administrator, police chief, fire chief, city clerk, city engineer and public works director. In addition to holding supervisory positions, they in many ways participate in shaping city policy — how our tax dollars are spent.

No easy answers
If the R-E is selective in printing salaries, where should we draw the line? It’s a difficult task. For example:

Print salaries of elected officials only. Is it fair to cite the county sheriff, who is elected, but not the city police chief, who is appointed?

Print salaries above a certain level. What’s a fair figure – $20,000, $25,000, $30,000? It’s far too subjective.

Print only supervisors. Again, it’s too subjective. The standard also is flawed in cases where a non-supervisory employee — due to overtime — is paid more than a supervisor. Should those salaries be revealed, too?

One reason to print government salaries is to allow private employers to size themselves against the public sector. For the employee, the information might be a bargaining chip. For the employer, it shows how tough the competition is.

Given the arguments, the issue boils down to consistency: Either the R-E prints all the salaries or none at all. If we had the resources, we’d treat all government employees alike. For instance, is it right to print just school administrators’ salaries — and not those of the 200-plus teachers whose incomes comprise 70 percent of the school budget?

Strive for consistency
Johnson presents an excellent challenge: The R-E should be as thorough with county or school wages as those for the city. We all must realize, though, that any policy will be second-guessed, and no system will be perfect.

Finally, publishing the wages falls under the category of protecting the rights the press has earned. Frequently, the R-E — and the press overall — is criticized for being a strong advocate of public information. There’s a good reason for our effort. Each time public officials get a small opening, they take the proverbial mile. Consider two events of the past year:

Randy Erickson, former managing director of the municipal auditorium, was placed on probation in secrecy. The agenda — minus the personnel matter — was routine, so the R-E did not attend. The board took action and made no public disclosure until the issue was pressed.

Three members of a county board held an unscheduled session without announcing the intent to deal with social services issues, then quietly terminated the county’s contract with its longtime mental health provider. Some other commissioners didn’t even know about it until the issue surfaced a week later.

Johnson presents some excellent points. But just as he stands by his arguments, the R-E is resolved to keep public business public.