Public Transparency vs Personal Privacy
Here’s a new twist on transparency following up Mark McDonald’s great post on the Omaha Schools superintendent. In that post, Mark gave solid advice on managing a very personal crisis for a public employee. In New Mexico, we are facing a different question: do state employees have privacy rights regarding the terms of their state employment?
The crux of the matter is this: do you have a right to know how much state employees in your state make? Gov. Susanna Martinez of New Mexico thinks you do. The state employees’ union begs to differ. The Albuquerque Journal reports the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18 filed a lawsuit in state district court in Albuquerque this week.
The move toward transparency in state government in New Mexico has been a political issue dating back to the previous governor’s tenure. Local journalists discovered in recent years that numerous political supporters of Gov. Bill Richardson were hired by his administration as relatively highly compensated “exempt” employees.
In a state that is perennially in the bottom 10 in national income rankings, discovering that the daughter of a political supporter gets a secretarial job for the state corrections department making twice what actual corrections officers make, this is pretty incendiary stuff.
So, after repeated requests from open government activists and members of the media, Gov. Martinez included names in the state’s developing Sunshine Portal, in addition to positions and salaries, starting in October 2011.
Is this okay?
While I wouldn’t be thrilled to have my salary posted for the world to see, Gov. Martinez is sending the right message to a state that is tired of ongoing public corruption.
I’ve seen (and been part of) government offices who manipulate media queries by citing public records access rules, or the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and forcing reporters to file formal requests into a system that may take 30 days or more to provide a response. It’s a losing strategy for two reasons:
- You immediately send the signal that you’re trying to hide something. If you think it will make the reporter go away, forget it. You’ve just made the story more interesting.
- It’s essentially jerk-y behavior. You will forever damage your relationship with the media by indulging in it. It is passive-aggressive at best, antagonistic at worst. Count on it, it will be reflected in the eventual coverage of the issue.
What would be too much information to release on government employees?
- Performance evaluations
- Medical conditions
- Counseling records
- … pretty much everything besides name, date of hire, position and salary.
Public employees having their compensation on public record is nothing new. Take for example the military. You can go to any number of sites to get current and past compensation rates by rank. Of course, these military pay charts don’t include individual names, but every individual in the military literally wears their rank on their person in uniform.
I also see a nice quid pro quo situation with this. As a government contractor, I often have to submit extremely detailed proprietary financial information, including individual salaries, to demonstrate “price realism.” I like the idea of our state government demonstrating the same “price realism."
Finally, in an era of recession, in a relatively poor state, it’s simply the right thing to let your taxpayers know what you’re spending their taxes on. It’s a basic way to help build trust amongst a skeptical population.
And Gov. Martinez’ office has taken some hits on this. It was noted after her first year of office, a number of these so-called political hires from the previous administration were still on state payroll. Every hire made by her administration is under public scrutiny. But she seems okay with that. And so should we.
As the “big boss” at Vox Optima, Merritt ranks creating her company as “a bigger deal than coming in third on a game show.” A radio disc jockey, a Navy public affairs officer at 20, and a business owner at 35, Merritt lives her life going several different directions at once. In addition to head paycheck writer, Merritt brings considerable strategic communication, media relations, and campaign and issue management expertise to Vox Optima as well as being the only adult supervision around here. You can find Merritt hanging out onTwitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or you can shoot her an email.
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