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Government pay disclosures are in the public interest

    A week ago, The Union Democrat published a list of Tuolumne County’s top 42 wage earners — those who grossed more than $100,000 in 2009.
    Our newspaper is making similar salary requests of Sonora and Angels Camp officials, Calaveras County executives and school districts in both counties. We intend to publish similar lists — of those highest earners — when documents become available.
    Why? Some would argue this is an invasion of employee’s privacy.
    Very simply, we believe the public has a right to know how its money is being spent.
    Unlike private sector employees, highly-compensated public employees — whose salaries, health care benefits and retirement plans are shouldered by taxpayers — must accept the scrutiny and transparency that comes with government employment.
    California’s Public Record Act says that the public should have access to government documents. Most readers would agree that The Democrat has a responsibility to bring many of these records into the sunshine. At a time when state, county and city governments are besieged with red ink and facing reductions in programs and staffing levels, questions surrounding compensation and public employee pensions are in full gallop. In essence: Shouldn’t the employer (taxpayer) signing the check, know the amount”their” government employee is being paid?
    Readers may question the amount of compensation paid to some individuals outlined in our report. In fairness, most salaries are commensurate with similar positions in other counties of our size. Also, long-time employees with service records of 20-to-25 years (and more) will have earned annual pay increases that propel them into the high-compensation range. That’s certainly the case with Undersheriff Keith Lunney, with 24 years’ experience, who earns more than his boss, Sheriff Jim Mele. Likewise, two veteran county prosecutors earn more than District Attorney Donald Segerstrom. Lawyers, physicians and engineers are among the top 42 along with other individuals with advanced degrees/ certification.
    Most mid-level managers and other county staffers are paid far more modestly. We salute all county employees — including the county’s highest paid executives — for agreeing to salary reductions and additional furlough days during this on-going budget crisis.
    Nearly everyone has read about the outrageous, corrupt and immoral actions of city leaders in Bell, California and six other small cities in Los Angeles county. Bell’s City Manager was earning $787,000 a year and its police chief $457,000 annually in a city of just 38,000 residents. In a state as highly regulated as California, it’s incredible that this type of exploitation, gross mismanagement and outright theft could go undiscovered for several years.
    None of us expect to find that kind of fiscal insanity in the Mother Lode. However, in Sacramento, waste, excess and unjustified salaries are rampant. The top 15 CalPERS executives — those same savvy investors who earned big bonuses while the state pension fund lost billions — deserve some public scrutiny.
    Those CalPERS execs earned between $250,000 to $430,000 in salary and bonuses in 2009. By way of comparison, the California governor’s salary is $206,500; the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court earns $227,300.
    The good news?
    Many public officials support the public’s right to know and believe in full disclosure.
    In Tuolumne County, administrators readily provided the 2009 total compensation for all its employees, as The Democrat requested.
    State Controller John Chiang, reacting to the scandals in Southern California, has requested salaries from every county and city in the state. He will post the results on his state government Web site in November.
    “The absence of transparency is a breeding ground for waste, fraud and the abuse of taxpayer dollars,” reasoned Chiang.
    We agree.

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