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County Can Break Final Barrier of Transparency on Salaries

FOR THE RECORD – The the name of the author of this op-ed column has been corrected.

In April the Bernalillo County Commission voted to adopt the policy that resulted in Bernco View – Bernalillo County’s transparency portal. The site allows users to look at the county checkbook, review campaign disclosures, peruse county contracts, check county credit cards and much more.

The Openness and Transparency Resolution was intended to be a beginning – a starting point to provide an ever-increasing amount of information to the public about its government. At the August rollout, Bernco View became one of the leading government transparency portals in the state and received an A-plus rating from the Sunshine Review.

Unfortunately, my fellow commissioners chose to amend my original resolution in a move to conceal the names of all classified county employees. As a result, taxpayers cannot review which county employee is making what for all but a few high-ranking employees. You can find out how much a position in a department pays and oddly, how many years the unnamed person in that position has been with the county – just not the name of the person holding the position.

At issue is not whether public employee salaries are public. The Inspection of Public Records Act requires that all but a very few public records including public employee salaries are just that – public.

The issue really is, how many barriers are government entities going to put between the public and the information that is rightfully and legally theirs?

In 1978 when the Inspection of Public Records Act was originally passed, the only way to provide information to the public was by cutting down trees and making copies. Trees are expensive and copies cost both time and money, so it was reasonable for governments to charge a modest fee for access to public information. Those fees became a convenient barrier to record access when clever politicians and bureaucrats figured out that most people preferred not to pay them.

Thirty years later, most government records are generated and stored electronically, and useful access to those records can be provided easily and at very little cost over the Internet. As a result, all of the logistical, technological and financial barriers have been shattered.

The only remaining barrier is fear.

From nefarious Nigerian princes to vengeful ex-spouses, fear was the reason that my fellow commissioners gave for erecting yet another barrier between the public and their information. But the fact remains that public employees have an inherent property right in their job – a right not enjoyed by the private sector. More important, they are public employees paid by the public to perform a public function.

Simply put, the public has an interest and a legal right to know what a public employee is paid for and who that employee is.

In April, the Bernalillo County Commission missed an opportunity to lead the way in open and transparent government. Since then, the city of Albuquerque, the state of New Mexico, and Albuquerque Public Schools have made all of their employee names and salaries public or committed to do so.

On Tuesday, Bernalillo County Commissioners will have a second chance to publish all of the county’s employee names and compensation by passing my new transparency resolution. It’s past time that we set aside our fear and follow in the footsteps of those who have found the courage to listen to the public and fully embrace openness and transparency in government.