Is there ever too much sunshine on government?
It’s Sunshine Week — the annual celebration of freedom of public information. Around the country, journalists, researchers, authors and citizens of many stripes are celebrating our collective right to know what government at all levels does. But at the local level, how much might be too much?
At Xpress, we’re taking note of Sunshine Week with two items in our next issue: a commentary by North Carolina Press Association President David Woronoff and a collection of stories about local activists who have used public records to advance their causes.
And year-round, we put public records in the forefront of our reporting. We also keep an ever-growing online archive of government documents in The Xpress Files.
But as much as we’re an avid disseminator of public information, there arises the occasional story project that poses questions about how much we should reveal. These stories are the anomalies that make us ask extra-hard questions.
One case in point might offer lessons. Last year, one of our editors pitched a story on salaries for city of Asheville employees, and obtained a spreadsheet from the city of said pay during the prior year. Ultimately, here’s what we reported. Here’s the story’s lead:
“Asheville city employees raked in $1.8 million in overtime pay last year, with some earning more than 50 percent of their base pay. One Asheville Police Department sergeant made $34,191 by working extra hours.
The taxpayer money spent on overtime is a drop in the bucket compared with the $47.5 million the city spends on base salaries for its roughly 1,100 employees. But it’s a critical part of the city’s annual spending plan that could be overlooked. Overtime spending can be an indicator of bad management or critical understaffing, city officials say. It can also give managers and workers valuable wiggle room to meet seasonal city needs or handle unforeseen circumstances.”
As you can see, we chose to tell the story of overtime pay, as opposed to everyone’s pay. In its online version, the story was accompanied by a spreadsheet itemizing exactly which employees, from which city departments, got paid overtime. It was a solid exposé, but it stopped short of what we’d set out to do, at least in terms of our original plan.
Of course, that happens a lot in journalism: You think you have the story at the outset of your planning for it, but things change shape along the way.
In this case, we reported less than we planned to at first, but may have honed in on information that mattered more than what we’d set out to find. And after we requested the salary information, we were contacted by numerous city employees who argued that revealing the amount of all of their paychecks would cause painful rifts in the workplace. Sometimes, knowing what the person next to you makes can turn co-workers resentful and spiteful.
We grappled with the question. We should put all this information out there, some argued: We’re talking about taxpayer money and full accountability. Others made the case that just as we, as journalists working for a small company, don’t want our salaries to be fodder for public debate — so too should we not pit civil servants into a neighbor-against-neighbor situation.
In the end, we told a good story. Our reporters highlighted what might be the real excesses when it comes to overtime pay, while taking note of the real benefits of judiciously planned overtime.
At the same time, part of me wishes we’d gone all in, and published the salaries of every single city employee. City government is running a deficit, and public money funds almost all that official Asheville does.
It left me wondering: How much sunshine on government is too much — or could there ever be enough?
— Jon Elliston, managing editor