I have learned that The Bee has filed a Public Records Act for “2007 base salary and overtime records, including employee name, department, and job title” for all employees of Sacramento County. Apparently the Bee is planning to compile a database and release all the information on its website, as it did earlier this year for State of CA workers.
This raises all the same issues as that project, concerning workers’ privacy, safety, and the public benefit of this level of public records releasing by the Bee. Bee editor Melanie Sill answered some of those FAQs back in March. I feel the same way I did then when RonTopofIt brought it to our attention, but even moreso in this case. County workers are a smaller group, so a smaller distribution of folks will be distributed in the lower end of the scale. These are the folks who do the heavy lifting, for pay most likely lower than comparable jobs in the private sector. None of Ms. Sill’s arguments persuades me that a simple listing of pay ranges for specific job classifications, with specific data for top salaries and elected officials, would not sufficiently satisfy the public’s interest in this matter where the Bee is concerned. Nor does Sill’s, well, somewhat snarky aside that “Simple internet searches might show you that your address and phone number, for instance, are available online through other sources.”
With this go-round, I am also thinking more about the safety angle. Many of these County folks are going to be on the “front lines” dealing with disgruntled “customers” — think county nurses or people working in CPS. More specific information about their jobs might put undo stress on those workers. This seems in especially bad taste since we assume the data will point since these employees don’t have the luxury of security or a phalanx of admin assistants to run interference–they are the ones handing out needles to drug users or checking up on deadbeat parents.
I know I’m probably being a little silly, but so I would contend is the Bee. Silly and way off base. A cursory glance at the comments on Sill’s editorial reveals that I am by no means alone in my reasoning. The readers see through Sill’s and the Bee’s silly logic and reveal their outrage at the Bee’s lack of perspective. The negative comments range from “How much do you make printing this trash?” to “you could have used job position and salary not my FULL NAME WHEN I JUST LEFT A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RELATIONSHIP!” Eek.
But let’s say for a minute that we do accept the overall legitimacy of this database, and Sill’s reasoning. The database still only provides limited functionality that can only really be used to pinpoint specific salaries. Absurdly, there is no easy way with the Bee’s database tool to access the total State payroll, which of course nobody would disagree is of great public interest these days. Sill herself is quoted, shockingly in her own paper’s story about SEIU’s picketing of her paper in March, that the “information on government spending is of public interest, particularly at a time when our state faces a widening budget crisis.” If you want to know how much the state is spending on payroll, however, you’ll have to do the math yourself.
For the record, I don’t have a problem with all of the Bee’s database projects — I think the food inspection database is a great service, for example. But their whole conception of the public worker salary database overshoots the mark. It has become obvious that McClatchy’s financial trouble, combined with the relevancy slide of establishment journalism in general, is creating a more and more irresponsible Sacramento Bee. I think it is time for the Bee’s more sober-minded staff to demand new direction.