As journalists, our default position on any question involving public records is that they should absolutely be open and available to public.
Naturally then, when County Executive Jan Gardner proposed a bill that would modify the state’s Public Information Act to shield some county employees’ salaries from view, we were instinctively opposed.
Under current law, the amount of taxpayers’ money that is collected by everyone on the public payroll — even those at the lowest level — is automatically open to public inspection. The reasons this provision was enacted are extremely important.
Suppose that a relative of the mayor, the county executive or the governor gets a relatively minor job with the city human resources department, or the county public information office, or the state highway department. Suppose that low-level employee is making a salary that is greater than anyone else in a comparable position. Or suppose she or he is making a normal salary but collecting inordinate amounts of overtime, perhaps even doubling their base pay.
Shouldn’t reporters or the public generally be able to check to see if favoritism is involved?
Even if the low-level employee is not a relative of a public official, but for some other reason is getting preferential treatment, his or her pay should be available. Or if supervisors are approving excessive overtime for many employees as a way to increase salaries without getting approval from lawmakers, that information should be available to the public.
That is why salary numbers have been recognized as public records for many years. Transparency and openness make for good government, plain and simple.
And yet, the creation of the internet and the explosion of companies collecting all manners of private information and using it in ways never before considered does give us pause. Has the world really changed so much that the old rules should no longer apply?
Gardner’s bill is being met with some skepticism and resistance in the county’s legislative delegation. The change involves state law and must be approved by the General Assembly. If her bill were to pass, salaries for elected officials, county division directors and other at-will positions would remain public, but only a salary range would be disclosed for lower level employees.
Frederick County Chief Administrative Officer Rick Harcum and Gardner (D) told legislators recently that the bill is necessary to prevent bad actors from stealing financial information and using it for identity theft.
They got strong pushback from Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll), the chairman of the county delegation. He said the transparency of county government salaries outweighs the identity theft concerns.
“I think that anybody who signs up to work in public office does sacrifice some privacy to be in that position ... people have a genuine interest in who pays us and how much we are paid,” Pippy said, according to our reporter, Steve Bohnel.
As we noted above, that is a principle with which we almost always agree.
The arguments made by Gardner may have some validity, and they should be considered and debated.
However, if the law is to be changed, it should not only apply to Frederick County government employees. If identify theft is a real danger for government employees, then the General Assembly needs to look at the law and at any proposed revision on a statewide basis, not county by county.