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.

(16) comments

gary4books

When I worked for the Federal Government, and even the State of Texas, my salary was public information. We would get the list every year and compare both salaries and raises and I did a spread sheet on occasions. I have never wanted or needed to keep my pay secret. It was never enough to brag about or low enough to shame me. Just pay.

Greg F

Jan doesn’t realize by pursuing this she is going to lose democratic votes, including mine.

NewMarketParent

@Greg F

Jan's gone after this term anyway. Good luck to her running for whatever else comes next. She's gonna need it because there is no way I would ever vote for her.

threecents

I don't know if it is a security risk to know how much people make - or whether thieves and sales people will target well-healed people - and I am not even a govt employee - but I personally don't think people's salaries should be made public. However, I think it is reasonable to publish how much is paid by the govt for each position.

Greg F

That’s what GS scales show

matthewboh

Is this an actual threat or is someone making it up? How many workers have had their identity stolen due to government openness or is this just another boogeyman?

NewMarketParent

@matthewboh

I agree. I deal with the concept of digital identity and information security at work and this is ridiculous. It is trying to take advantage of the general public's ignorance at how identity theft works.

It is pretty shameful that this is being attempted. In a time where we have realized that we need more government transparency, they are seeking less.

KellyAlzan

I saw where Jan made mention of identity theft. I think she pulled it out of god knows where

NewMarketParent

I think you have a good idea of where she pulled it from...

KellyAlzan

I want to know exactly how much ba’lane’s mistress whom he hired to run the county finances is being paid. Yes I do.

FrederickFan

Maybe before writing an opinion, the editor should read and understand the bill. The bill proposes disclosing the salaries of high level and appointed employees and a salary or grade range for everyone else. Overtime is generally budgeted separately so this information would still be available. Not sure why average workers need to risk having their identity stolen. How does that serve a public purpose?

olefool

Extend the practice to all salaries including perks and bonuses. Not just government employees, but everybody... Let's see what you're really worth...

MD1756

FrederickFan, the salaries of almost all federal government employees (only a few are not included for security reasons) are available to the public. Ranges can be set up so that they are meaningless. Having one's salary publicly available, certainly by itself, is not a security risk. I worked for the US EPA and was twice notified by OPM that my PII was potentially compromised, but no one stole my identity or opened up any accounts. If thieves don't use the millions of federal employees' salary information for identity theft, why would they use lower paid city/county workers' salary information for identity theft or other illegal purposes?

BTW olefool, bonuses for federal employees is a matter of public record too.

Piedmontgardener

It's called sunshine in government. It's never the right answer to have less transparency, unless we are discussing classified matters.

DickD

I.agree, F.F. and the example given isn't true, if salaries are kept withina specified range. If this is really a problem ,just report any salary that doesn't conform to the specified range.

NewMarketParent

@FrederickFan

Except is there a supporting case showing that someone actually got their identity stolen via this method?

If identity theft is really possible via this method (it's not) let's tighten the restrictions on easy credit and raise the bar on proof of identity instead of applying this horrible bandaid.

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