FEBRUARY 02, 2011
In the aftermath of a huge corruption scandal in a tiny city, California’s controller is working to make public the taxpayer-funded salaries of all state employees but dozens of government agencies refuse to provide figures.Of the state’s 900 local government agencies more than 172 have flipped the finger at the controller’s request, in violation of a decades-old public records law. Of those that have complied, more than a dozen paid top officials in excess of $300,000 in 2009, according to figures posted by California Controller John Chiang.The controller’s database features local government salaries and other compensations and includes all job classifications in the state’s individual cities, counties and special districts. It lists about 700 transit, fire, police and waste disposal workers. A separate report has noncompliant counties, cities and special districts that face fines of up to $5,000 for blowing off the probe.Chiang launched the project after the Los Angeles County town of Bell was left paralyzed by crooked officials who gave themselves exorbitant salaries and illegal “personal loans” from city coffers. Eight officials—including the mayor and three council members—were arrested last fall for stealing more than $5.5 million from taxpayers in the mostly Hispanic working class city of about 38,000.Shortly after the scandal broke, local media outlets tried to obtain salary information for the region’s public employees but the requests were often met with resistance. In Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous, officials claimed that divulging their income could put them at a safety risk after a local newspaper requested the identities and pay of county workers who earn $250,000 or more annually.Of the county’s 100,000 employees only a few hundred were expected to be on the secret list so the information should have been readily available. Instead, the county attorney handling the matter asserted that employees “have expressed personal safety and similar concerns about such disclosure.” The refusal clearly violated the state’s 1968 Public Records Act and was further challenged.Indisputably, government salaries are public record in California. Besides the state’s longtime public records law, a 2007 state Supreme Court ruling says government workers don’t have a reasonable expectation to privacy in their salary or compensation information.The ruling recognizes that public employees may be uncomfortable with the prospect of others knowing their pay. However, in light of the strong public policy supporting government transparency, the decision says an individual’s “expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector.”
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