First off, congratulations to the Reno Gazette-Journal on its investigative work on the local government overtime problem. Honestly, if daily newspapers are going to survive these difficult times, that’s the kind of work they have to take up. The stories can be found on the rgj.com website. We’d like to offer you an URL to find the stories, but at press time, they are not listed under “news/special reports” or any other blanket heading. For the moment, readers can search “overtime” in the search box at the top of the page and feel their way around. No telling whether it’ll become paid archive material after seven days.
So, let’s examine some of the issues that arose because of the lawsuit to block release of public employee salary information to the RG-J. As background, on Dec. 12, Washoe District Judge Patrick Flanagan found that the newspaper did have a right to the documents, and that the documents were public records—in other words, accessible to anybody. That included the names of people not generally thought of as public figures, but, since they get their paychecks from taxpayers, are answerable to their bosses, those same taxpayers.
The RG-J chose not to list all of the names or salaries in the database the newspaper created, but chose instead, “to include only the names for the highest paid employees of an entity whose gross pay, when combined, comprises half of its total salary expenses. As an example, in the city of Reno’s case, 27 percent of its employees made half its payroll budget and 73 percent made the other half; we are listing the names of the 27 percent. We are also using the names of elected officials. Names of all undercover law enforcement have been removed.”
From our point of view, it’s a half-step. The fundamental problem is that by identifying some people (not including elected officials) but not others, it seems to portray these people as having done something wrong, as somehow abusing a system that they did not create. This is simply not the case. These people are generally working under contract, and if the contract is the problem, then it’s time for elected officials to step up and renegotiate the contract in a way that protects taxpayers. And those negotiations, since they involve public safety workers, could turn ugly when the day for talks does arrive—that’s the strength of unions. It will be incumbent upon all parties to be patient and put the public’s welfare first.
We’ve also heard, through our own sources and commentary on that newspaper’s site, about inaccuracies in the amounts of income reported and obvious mistakes in the data entry. Still, this is a giant step in the right direction, and stories often develop and improve after first publication.
Despite the fact that we, as journalists and Reno Gazette-Journal readers, have some questions about the specifics of how the newspaper did its report, that’s quibbling—we still congratulate the newspaper and its staff on its initiative, on seeing the court case through, and on trying to live up to its responsibility to help people of Northern Nevada be better, more informed citizens.