The Pine Cone's editorial of the week

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Editorial: Teach this

Published: April 5, 2013

PATRICIA LONG may be the highest-paid teacher at Pacific Grove High School, but judging by the letter to the editor she sent us this week (and which appears elsewhere on this page), we certainly hope she isn’t the most competent, because the letter evinces a shocking lack of understanding of journalism, politics, economics, history and the law. If you read the letter, you’ll surely be troubled to think that the person who wrote it is an educator, and role model, for our young people.

First of all, you’d expect a petulant preschooler, not a responsible adult, to accuse a reporter and the editor of The Pine Cone of having a “vendetta” against public employees because we think it’s important for the taxpayers to know how much the people who work for them are paid. It’s fine for Ms. Long to disagree with our decision to report salary information for the highest-paid teachers, city officials, police officers and so forth. But claiming we do so because we have ill motives is just dumb.

Secondly, it is very well established law in California that government records — including the names and salaries of government employees — are public information. Starting with the Public Records Act of 1968, and then with the adoption of Proposition 59 in 2004, and continuing right up to the California Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 vs. Superior Court of Alameda County, it is emphatically, utterly and indisputably true that the information we printed, including the fact that Ms. Long’s compensation and benefits totalled $131,025.44 last year, belongs to the public. All we did was deliver it to them.

Furthermore, it should be obvious to every disinterested person that all those laws and court decisions are based on very sound reasoning. As the Supreme Court explained in Engineers, “Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy.” If corruption exists in government, how would it be exposed and rooted out if government officials were allowed to keep what they did hidden?

Adding specificity to the point, various judges said over and over again as the Engineers case made its way through the courts that the “disclosure of the names of employees in connection with their individual salaries is in many cases necessary to disclose inefficiency, favoritism, nepotism and fraud with respect to the government’s use of public funds for employee salaries.”

There was good reason for them to go so far. Recent history shows that government payroll corruption is, indeed, very common in this state.
Those are the commonsense legal arguments that support what we did. But there’s also an obvious economic explanation why taxpayers need to know how much public employees are making: It’s their money.

When a business owner and one of his employees negotiate over pay, they do so on an equally self-interested footing, because every dollar the employee receives in pay is a dollar the boss can’t keep for himself in profit. But in government, the bosses aren’t paying their workers with their own money, they’re paying them with money that belongs to a group of people who aren’t even in the room. Thus, full public disclosure of payroll negotiations between government managers and workers is required in order for these negotiations to bear any resemblance to normal economic behavior.

Which brings us to Ms. Long’s utterly irrelevant, playground-style demand that The Pine Cone reveal the pay of everybody who works here and all their assets, “including the editor.” We aren’t paid by taxpayers, ma’am, so it’s none of your business.

We understand that many government employees don’t want everyone to know how much they make. But as the Supreme Court explained in Engineers, that consideration is far outweighed by the benefit to the public of having that information be known.

So not only do we not apologize for our regular reporting on this issue, we are proud of it.