Thursday, March 13, 2008

Okay, So, Does Anyone In This State Bother To Check The Law Anymore?

Between Jack O'Connell basically dismissing (or actively attempting to appear to be) the appeals court and today's story about an SEIU protest, I wonder if anyone looks anything up anymore.

So here's the deal, the Bee posted a database of state employees' salaries. It's user-friendly and fun. But at least one union is taking a very public, very angry stance:

[Service Employees International Union Local 1000] President Jim Hard told the protesters that he was "disgusted" by what he described as the paper's "crass commercialism" and "callous disregard" for his members' safety.

"Our union is completely in favor of public access to information regarding the use of their tax money, the pay scales, the classifications, the number of state employees and comparisons in any reasonable fashion to counties, cities and the public sector," Hard said. "But to post my name up there, I'd like The Bee to explain how that helps any public policy of public finance discussion or issue."
Well, for one thing, it helps me decide who should be paying for lunch, but that's just a side benefit.

The Bee defends itself, rightfully, by saying "salary information on individual employees "has long been public and available to anyone who sought it out." Such public information shouldn't be limited "to journalists or lawyers."

Of course, if I were a journalist watching my fellow writers disappear because of budget cuts, I might want to keep tighter control on information - or at least the impression that I have control over it. But nevermind.

Of course, among state employees included in the database are a vast number of peace officers whose privacy has also been afforded higher protection than non-sworn employees. But even they can't avoid disclosure, as determined by a recent California Supreme Court case (POST v. Superior Court of Sacramento County, Respondent; Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, Real Party in Interest):

This case presents the question whether the California Public Records Act (Gov.Code, § 6250 et seq.) requires the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (Commission) to disclose the names, employing departments, and hiring and termination dates of California peace officers included in the Commission's database. The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment rendered by the superior court, which directed that the records be disclosed, because of the appellate court's conclusion that this information is obtained from peace officer personnel records which, under Penal Code sections 832.7 and 832.8, may not be disclosed except under certain statutorily prescribed circumstances. We conclude that the records at issue are not rendered confidential by those two statutes and that the records do not come within any of the exemptions contained in the Public Records Act. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal. Upon remand to the superior court, the Commission may seek to establish that information regarding particular officers or categories of officers should be excised from the disclosed records because the safety or efficacy of the officers would be jeopardized by disclosure.
So, sorry SEIU, but if peace officers can't dodge this informational bullet, I don't see why you would be able to do so.

Of course, legislative staff have been easily searchable on-line for years now. And even before the on-line database was available, their names were printed up once a year or so in hardcopy form. Same for federal legislative employees.

And all these people: Michigan, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, South Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Dakota, Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri, All U.S. Government Workers.

The Bee defends itself thusly with the best single argument against outrage being:

2. Concerns about safety being compromised by publishing the names and departments where individual workers are employed: We have considered this issue again today in light of the complaints but do not believe we are publishing information that could not easily be obtained from other public sources. State workers' names and locations, for instance, are available online through the state government employee directory. So is other information, such as employees' email addresses, that we have not published.
There's so much more about people out there that could be a problem that they haven't noticed . . . this is really no big deal.

Unless you live in a country where money is the single thing we want most but want least to talk about. Oops, we do, don't we.

But to get back to my original point, as with homeschooling and eminent domain, this is just one more example of a big deal being made out of the status quo. That no one has been paying attention to the status quo is of no consequence. I suppose ignorance is bliss - expect when subsequent education results in media storms full of bluster but devoid of substance.

Now, who do I call about lunch . . . .

p.s. The underlying concern here is captured in a comment to the story about the protest:

As a State Employee, I work for the citizens of California. As a citizen, you are entitled to know how much you are paying me to do my job. My biggest concern about this whole matter is you as taxpayers may not beleive I am worth what your paying me!!
And there's the problem: directing more attention to state salaries results in focusing on the very highest echelons of salaries which results in non-state-employees pitching a fit (at the suggestion of media, natch) about unfairly high wages. Of course, in the private sector, everyone wants to be paid more, right? I do. Who doesn't? We all want more stuff, more security, more comfort, college for our kids, etc. But we're missing the point if we blame state employees for our not having more money ourselves. They're the butt of jokes and consistently told they aren't worth what they are being paid. Somehow, they should serve us as an act of charity on their part. Some critical state jobs are so poorly paid compared to private jobs or even other jurisdictions that the state loses qualified people. Then we're left with either vacancies or lesser qualified individuals. Which results sometimes in mistakes that anger the public and make them question why state workers are paid "so much." And they cycle continues.

Like this blogger says - save yourselves, don't work for us.

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