Examiner FOIAs so you don’t have to

It’s really a very simple concept: If you work for the government, taxpayers who pay your salary and benefits have the right to know how much you make.  If you don’t want such personal information to be made public, get a job in the private sector.

However, making sure that citizens can exercise their right to know this aspect of how their tax dollars are being spent is often all but impossible.

The Examiner recently sent out Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to local governments and school systems in the Washington metropolitan area. We asked for a list all their employees, including each worker’s name, job title, department, annual salary, paid overtime, bonuses or other performance incentives, date and amount of last raise, amount of medical and pension benefits paid on their behalf and total compensation in an Excel-compatible format.

Since we plan to post this information on our Web site and thus make it unnecessary for our readers to submit other FOIA requests for the same data, we asked them to waive their customary processing fees.

Government officials are required by law to respond to FOIA requests in a timely manner, and all of the jurisdictions contacted acknowledged receipt of our request. So far, so good.

Then it got a bit complicated.

The D.C. Public Schools replied that “current salary information of all District of Columbia government employees is public information and is posted on the District’s website at: http://grc.dc.govFOIA.  True, but DCPS employees are lumped in together with all other city employees and the list is not in Excel-compatible format, which we requested. DCPS knows how to submit an Excel spreadsheet because we got one in response to an earlier FOIA request for all DCPS employees making more than $100,000 per year (there’s 206 in case you’re interested).

DCPS also denied our request for total compensation, as well as any overtime, bonuses or performance incentives, salary increases, and total value of benefits for each employee, claiming that it “does not currently generate” such a report and is not required to do so under the FOIA statute.

Although we acknowledge that the specific number of sick days an individual employee takes is personal information that the general public does not need to know, providing total compensation protects employees’ privacy while letting taxpayers know how much it cost to keep them on the payroll. So we’re appealing to the mayor.

Alexandria Public Schools agreed to provide The Examiner with “the names, title, department, annual salary and total compensation paid for all full-time and part-time employees who made more than $10,000 during 2008” for a $100 fee, which they refused to waive. They won’t provide overtime, salary increases, benefits and sick days for each identifiable employee, so we’ve asked for the amount in aggregate.

Fairfax County cited the personnel record exemption in Virginia’s FOIA law to deny our request for overtime, sick leave and retirement benefits. But they won’t even provide the amount of total compensation paid to each employee that neighboring Alexandria Public Schools – which is bound by the same state law – is willing to release. For a $300 fee, all Fairfax County will give us is a list of employees’ names, titles, departments and annual salary as of the current pay period. At least it will be in Excel.

Montgomery County turns out to be more transparent than its counterpart across the Potomac River. In addition to the data Fairfax County agrees to release, MoCo will toss in overtime earned by each employee in FY09 and a total dollar amount the county spent on health insurance, pensions and sick days. In addition, we will be receiving a list of all service contracts – all without charge.

We’re still a ways from providing Examiner readers with all the government employee compensation data we requested, but we’ll keep you posted.

 

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