Commentary: Is receptionist pay vital information?

November 5, 2007

The office was abuzz when I walked in on a Monday morning in late August 2006. The Indiana Economic Development Corp. staff was upset and it didn't take long to find out why. The Indianapolis Star had published their names and salaries as part of a lead story launched from the front page of the Sunday edition.

"Is it the solemn civic duty of the Star to let the world know what I make?" our receptionist asked, crying.

A member of the audit team added, "When I dropped my child off at the bus stop this morning, my neighbor accosted me with the fact that my salary was the subject of neighborhood conversation the day before. Isn't it tough enough to be a state employee?"

All morning, I fielded emotions ranging from distress to outrage.

The following Sunday, Star Editor and Vice President Dennis Ryerson wrote about the deed in his regular column.

"Our reasons for publishing were these: There is a great public interest in this information ... . The best government is a transparent government ... . The information could be useful to state employees themselves," he said.

None of these arguments is convincing:

Great public interest. I recall the great public interest in the photographs of Jackie Kennedy's nude romp on a Mediterranean island. Appeals to voyeurism in photos or in personal financial data is not sufficient reason to publish.

Transparent government. Only marginal improvement in transparency is achieved by the publication of IEDC non-executive salaries at a punishing price to those affected. If taxpayers need to know what they are paying for, they can learn sufficient information about state workers if the information is published within ranges and categories such as job titles, divisions and years of service.

Useful information to state employees. The fact that salary information could be useful to state employees does not confer a right to publish. In private industry, knowledge of fellow employees' salaries could be useful, but employees are generally not entitled to learn that information. Why should state employees be accorded different treatment?

That week, I invited Star Publisher Barbara Henry and Ryerson to an IEDC conference room filled to standing room only with IEDC employees who, one at a time, emotionally objected to the Star's actions. Ryerson and Henry were moved. I thought they would end this practice. I was wrong.

On Sept. 23, 2007, the Star published updated salary information on its Web site. Ryerson rationalized in his column that day, "Stories have been written in other states about politically connected employees making more than others. Those stories couldn't have been written without the names of the employees being revealed." OK, then write a story about politically connected employees. This can be accomplished without trampling on the dignity of innocent people.

Ryerson further informed us in his column that other daily newspapers have published salaries of state workers. So you weren't the first one to take a cookie out of the jar?

The salaries of public company executives have been published in the Star and other publications, including this newspaper. Corporate CEOs cede certain privacy rights, including the right to shield their compensation from the public; however, I have never seen an itemization by name of the reception and clerical staff salaries in a public company annual report.

While state government salaries are public record, it would require some effort on an individual's part to view specific information. Just because one might be able to discover information someplace else does not mean there is value in publishing it in a newspaper.

Apparently, the adverse ramifications of having one's salary laid bare in the newspaper extend beyond what I originally envisioned. I read in Ruth's Blog about a Michigan state employee whose salary was published in the Lansing State Journal, also a Gannett publication. After realizing that now everyone knew he was making a paltry sum, he lamented, "Great. Now I'll never get laid."

Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.
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