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Public Fallout

Bureaucracy has developed a strategy for obstructing access to public information, like salaries of officials supported by tax dollars.

By Laura Stuchinsky

AMOMENTARY hesitation on the part of the public bureaucrats who watchdog salary figures is understandable. No one likes to have their paycheck sum bandied about in public. Aside from feeling like a rather intimate and personal detail, such information can raise the unwelcome specter of measurement and comparison, not to mention animosity.

Welcome to life in the public sector, where jobs and salaries -- supported by taxpayer dollars--are a matter of public record. Unfortunately, as Metro recently learned, many of our local bureaucrats remain conveniently muddled about the concept of disclosure. Others were just plain paranoid.

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Detailed information on:

The county's top 20 salaries
City officials
Council aides
County aides
Redevelopment Agency

Plus, how the SJ Redevelopment Agency salaries stack up to other cities.

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THE CIRCUITOUS JOURNEY began with a reporter ricocheting back and forth between four city offices--the personnel department, the offices of the city clerk, the city manager and the redevelopment agency.

The San Jose Redevelopment Agency was as smooth and impenetrable as the agency's chic white-on-white walls. Dozens of phone messages specifically requesting the sought-after data disappeared into a black voicemail hole, never to be returned. Those humans who answered their phones were reluctant to provide even the most basic information, like how many people the agency employed, the acreage of the redevelopment areas or even an organizational chart. Instead, they offered to have an authorized person call back--a feat that failed to occur for several weeks until the agency discovered Metro was planning a comparison of its salaries with other similar-sized redevelopment agencies (see sidebar).

When the proper agency authority was finally reached, the response wasn't much better. Even top redevelopment officials refused to release information on employees salaries, or an organizational chart listing occupational titles and names.

"What are you going to use it for?" queried Mike Wright, assistant director of finance, when asked for the chart, as if it mattered.

"We don't release employee names and titles," he continued. "It's a personnel issue."

Ray Carrillo, the agency's personnel director, was much more bureaucratic. He said Metro would have to file a formal request with the agency's counsel in order to obtain information on the agency's "at will" employees who comprise the bulk of the agency's staff. Unlike contract employees or civil servants, folks who are employed at will can be fired at any time or quit at their own discretion--the situation most employees work under.

It took a call to the San Jose city attorney's office to set everyone straight. After hearing the story, assistant city attorney Bill Hughes called and reminded the agency that all city salaries--including "at will" employees--are public record. And finally, the agency did release the requested information.

Redevelopment's early objections to the release of salary information is at conflict with city policy and practice, according to other San Jose higher-ups, and may violate the law.

The mayor's communications director, Kevin Pursglove, when informed of the "personnel issue" objection to the release of names and titles, said that if that was a policy, "I've never heard of it before. It's never been expressed that way to me."

As for the mayor's staff, "any time the public or the media asks about (salaries) we disclose that information."

City Attorney Joan Gallo, when informed of Redevelopment's "policy," commented, "Somebody misspoke. We have traditionally always released."

Is disclosure required by law? "That is certainly the way that we interpret the law," Gallo said. "We do believe it is required and we have always released it."

Redevelopment's Forsberg confirmed that there is no policy against releasing the figures. "Public information is public information as far as the agency's concerned. There is sometimes a reluctance, but not a policy. "

Forsberg said Redevelopment has no written policies or guidelines on dealing with the press. When questions arise, it checks with the city attorney's office," he said.

Local preservation activists say that for years the agency effectively locked them out of its development process by failing to give them advance notice on projects involving historic buildings.

Members of the city's New Realities Task Force said they, too, had difficulty piercing the polished surface of the agency's public relations spiel to reach more substantive information.

City Hall insiders say they've frequently had trouble prying information out of the public agency. Even councilmembers have been known to complain about the agency's propensity for slapping encyclopedia-sized development proposals on their doorsteps the morning they were scheduled to be heard--even as the agency pressed the council to take swift action to catch a purportedly rapidly-closing window of opportunity.

Not all redevelopment agencies operate like San Jose's. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency released salary and structure information without hesitation, as did San Diego's Centre City Development Corporation, the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles and the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency, all contacted through the course of researching this story (see related sidebar).

AT CITY HALL, the resistance to providing public access was more passive in nature--something like a dead dog lying in front of a closed door.

Thanks to a helpful staff technician in the city's human resources office, Metro was able to scoop up information on the city's administrators with ease. We provided a list of names; the department shot back a fax with the figures.

But, again, the system broke down when it came to "at will" employees. The human resources department only maintains information on civil servants, which excludes city council aides and most of the redevelopment staff.

To obtain council aide salaries, Metro was sent downstairs to the city clerk's office.

A records staffer could only provide Metro with a five-inch-thick stack of employment contracts. To find out how much councilmembers are paying their staffers, the data had to be extracted from the hundreds of contracts, page by page.

Puzzled at the cumbersomeness of the process, the records staffer asked a financial analyst sweeping through the office if the city didn't maintain a list of the council aide salaries?

"No," responded the analyst. "We quit compiling a list of the aide salaries years ago because the press kept asking for it."

IN TERMS OF ACCESSIBILITY, the County of Santa Clara scored highest of the three in meeting the requirements of the law. A patient staffer in Santa Clara County Employment Services Agency actually helped Metro compile a list of the highest-paid administrators in the county. Management Analyst Marina Arellano was unfazed by repeated calls for more information and accuracy checks. Peter Kutras Jr, the department head, also responded quickly to a call from the paper. However, one phone call made it clear that an unsuspecting member of the public making a wrong call could just as easily drown in quicksand.

One day, when Arellano was out of the office, Metro called another staff person in the human resources department for help checking an employee's salary. Puzzled, she put the call on hold to discuss the request with a colleague, and returned to say the information was confidential. To prove her point, she transferred the call to the public employees union, which reiterated her assertion.

Metro hung up and waited for Arellano's return.

While supervisoral aides are also at-will employees, the county's human services division keeps track of all employees, making the department a one-stop-shop for information on all county salaries.

Although it required perseverance to gather the information, and more time than the average citizen would probably devote to the task, compiling data on the city and county's salaries was a worthwhile exercise in bureaucratic cat-and-mouse. The result? The public can rest easy knowing its tax dollars are supporting some very nice jobs.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro

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Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.


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