Publishing public employee compensation

Updated Oct. 4, 2011

Publishing government employee salaries has become commonplace nationwide since courts have ruled repeatedly that public transparency in this area outweighs an expectation of privacy. We at inewsource carefully considered the court decisions, the prevalence of salary disclosures and the potential reaction to publication of the full data before posting it.

Our decision was made less difficult in light of the salary scandals in the tiny city of Bell in Los Angeles County.

State employee names and salaries, including those of university employees, have been available for more than three years on the Sacramento Bee’s website.

Although we debated ethical considerations, the legal issues were articulated clearly by the California Supreme Court. In its 2007 ruling, the state high court concluded that the public good resulting from openness trumps embarrassment or privacy concerns.

Then Chief Justice Ron George wrote for the majority, “We recognize that many individuals, including public employees, may be uncomfortable with the prospect of others knowing their salary… Nonetheless, in light of the strong public policy supporting transparency in government, 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.”

George continued, “Counterbalancing any cognizable interest that public employees may have in avoiding disclosure of their salaries is the strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money. As we have observed in the context of the public’s right of access to court proceedings and documents, public access makes it possible for members of the public to expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice, and favoritism.”

The court quoted news articles as part of its reasoning: an article about a city department manager’s wife earning $80,000 as an information technology specialist assigned to that department while it was requiring employee layoffs; a University of California executive who received a substantial pay raise while the university was laying off employees and raising student tuition. A city firefighter, a police officer, and a transit supervisor who were one city’s highest paid employees due to overtime. “These examples,” the court wrote, “even when they reveal no impropriety, amply illustrate that disclosure of government salary information serves a significant public interest.”

inewsource analyzed the data, and publish stories that give the data context. We hope you find the combination a public service.

Lorie Hearn
Executive Director

shadow-ornament

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Lorie Hearn:

Lorie Hearn is the founder and executive director of inewsource.