Jeffrey Roberts: When public information is not public

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/25/2013 - 10:56am

From Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition: With a proposed property tax increase on the November ballot, Conifer resident Melody Mesmer thought that residents of the Elk Creek Fire Protection District ought to know how much district employees have been paid over the last few years in salary and overtime.

But even though such information is public under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), the fire district isn’t handing it over.

Elk Creek denied Mesmer’s request because the compensation information she seeks is mingled in payroll records with Social Security numbers and other confidential data. Unlike open-records laws in some other states and the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law in Colorado does not explicitly require – nor does it encourage – records custodians to redact private information from records and then release portions that are public (except under a very few circumstances).

“I’m just insanely frustrated that I can’t get a public record,” Mesmer says. She wonders why a district with just nine paid employees cannot – or will not – give her year-end payroll reports with confidential information blacked out. “I’ve seen emails (redacted) that way. If they need a buck-fifty for their time with a marker, I’m happy to pay it.”

It’s not that simple or inexpensive, says Richard Toussaint, attorney for the Elk Creek district. Year-end payroll reports, which are produced for the district by an outside vendor, show multiple deductions and other points of private information for each monthly pay period. “There isn’t just one line in there that says what the (employee’s) pay is for the year.”

The district did provide Mesmer with salary and overtime data for volunteers who are compensated for battling fires in other parts of the state because “that one was simple to redact,” Toussaint notes. “This other one was definitely going to take some time,” and district officials also worried that they might mistakenly release something confidential.

The bottom line for Mesmer is that redacting the payroll records she requested would require more effort than the district, which has one administrative employee, is willing put forth. “That’s what the AG said,” Toussaint says. “You don’t have to do it if it’s a ton of work.”

[...]

Many governments routinely release public-employee compensation data and some, like the state of New Jersey, even publish it online. Why is it in the public’s interest to know how much government employees are paid? In these days of straining government budgets and underfunded public pensions, it doesn’t take much research to find newspaper stories with headlines like this: “Public pension ‘spiking’: Overtime hours soar for St. Paul fire supervisors.”

Visit Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition for more.

Jeffrey Roberts is the executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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