Lane County’s $23,487 wall to public records
by In the news Thursday, August 11. 2016
openthebooksBy Adam Andrzejewski
Oregon taxpayers deserve to see every dime spent at every level of government — federal, state and local. So why does Lane County want to charge $23,487 to simply produce a record of its public employee salaries?
Recently, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization American Transparency filed Freedom of Information Act requests with each of the 1,509 units of government in Oregon asking them to produce their checkbook expenditures, public employee salaries and pension information. Our goal is to capture and display every dime, online and in real time — a complete record of all government spending within Oregon for fiscal year 2015.
We believe transparency is the foundation of smart government. It answers key questions in public policy: How much does government really cost? Are there indications of waste, fraud or duplication? Once citizens can see these details, politicians have a hard time saying, "There’s no place left to cut or consolidate."
Last month, we added the 34,855 state of Oregon public employee salary records to our database. This type of information can be illuminating: The top 1,626 highly compensated state employees receiving annual salaries of more than $100,000 cost taxpayers $258.3 million in payroll, benefits and pension costs. In 2010, there were only 730 six-figure salaries in state government, which cost taxpayers roughly $117.5 million in total compensation.
Yet Oregon’s state government was unable to produce a basic record containing names, titles, salaries and employment ZIP codes for all state workers. After two months and correspondence with three state agencies, we still can’t establish the location or whereabouts of state personnel.
Collecting the public pension information was a similar story. The state Public Employees Retirement System will not release the last "government employer" of retirees. We’ve already found 1,853 retirees with $100,000-plus pensions conferred by universities, municipalities and other units of Oregon government. But which public bodies conferred the most $100,000-plus retirement pensions, and which coddle double-dipping public servants who game the system for personal gain?
We’d like to hold them accountable, but there’s a lack of basic transparency.
We are deeply committed to opening the books at every level and will not rest until the public can see exactly where government spends our money.
So we are filing a request for review with the Oregon attorney general. Why? Because 39 local units of Oregon government want to charge us more than $40,100 in special fees just to produce simple records of public employee salaries.
If these units succeed in imposing what is essentially a transparency tax, our organization could face future fees up to $4 million across 1,509 units of government to simply compile a complete record of all government expenditures: salaries, pensions and vendor transactions. Levying extreme fees — a tactic used to keep government spending hidden — is a violation of Oregon’s open records law.
What on earth could Lane County, which wants to charge us $23,000 in fees, be hiding?
Recently, while examining the Portland’s public salaries, we found that the embattled environmental services director Marriott Dean took home $355,760 in 2015, not the $199,000 severance package that was widely reported. And Portland’s fire training chief, Mark Kaeil, made $275,891 last year.
In our home state of Illinois, in 2013, we faced comparable resistance to transparency from a Republican comptroller. After filing a successful lawsuit, we posted online all line-by-line state spending since 2005: half a million vendors were paid half a trillion dollars on 500 million individual transactions.
When we opened the books in Illinois, we found that the salary of a school district treasurer jumped from $164,000 to $296,000 in one year. After his indictment for stealing more than $1.5 million over 20 years, the treasurer is serving a nine-year prison term.
At my local junior college, the College of DuPage, the president, treasurer and comptroller were fired after our exposure showed that administrators opened "house accounts" at the upscale on-campus French restaurant and billed hundreds of thousands of dollars against students, taxpayers and the scholarship fund.
In our quest to post every dime taxed and spent at every level of Oregon government, we applaud the nearly 300 municipal, state, school district and other local units of government — so far — that have produced a full record of their salaries.
So here’s our message to Oregon taxpayers: In God we trust, but our politicians we must audit. After capturing, mapping and displaying online all Oregon government spending, there will be endless opportunities for oversight. Remember, it’s your money. You have a right to know how it’s spent.