How much privacy for public employees?

Transparency is a difficult area for politicians and policymakers.

Typically they profess to understand the value of open government, but it’s astounding how quickly they can carve out exceptions to withhold information from the public.

Consider HB1768, a bill currently working its way through the state Legislature. If enacted, it would disclose salary information about government workers in the form of ranges, as opposed to exact compensation. Supporters of the bill (like the Hawaii Government Employees Association) cite the need for some level of privacy for state employees, which many people can sympathize with. On the other hand, early versions of the bill didn’t specify the ranges that should be provided, making any information it would provide virtually useless for the purpose of studying public employees compensation.

Salary information was crucial to the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii’s efforts to expose excessive overtime pay on Kauai, and it has been at the heart of other overtime scandals. To reduce this to a question of privacy overlooks the strong public interest in knowing how taxpayer money is being spent, especially when corruption and self-dealing might be hidden in those salaries.

In its latest incarnation, HB 1768 caps the range at $15,000 — an improvement on its previous versions. However, in the effort to balance privacy and the public interest, we must remember that government employees are in a different category than the typical private citizen. They hold a position of public trust, and with that comes a higher standard of openness about the details of their employment — including their compensation.

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