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Harlan: There's no need to list employee salaries by name

March 30, 2013|By Jeffrey Harlan

Recently, my 9-year-old daughter and niece discovered the "Guinness Book of World Records."

Fascinated and amused by most of the recorded achievements, they are also easily repulsed by some of the more grotesque feats — longest fingernails, most body piercings, farthest eyeball pop.

Looking at the Costa Mesa Employee Compensation Report that the city released last week, I couldn't help but feel similar disgust.

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I wasn't taken aback by the salaries or pensions or healthcare benefits our city employees earn. And I wasn't repelled by the six-figure salaries several employees receive, especially our public safety personnel. Rather, I was sickened by the city's poor judgment in including every employee's last name and first initial in the report.

Of course, the city has the right to publish this list and delineate our public employees' compensation packages. The actual financial data is valuable information. But this was also an opportunity to show some decorum, respect and restraint.

I asked Bill Lobdell, Costa Mesa's public information officer, why the city felt compelled to include the individual's names. Wouldn't a comprehensive list by position, the accepted practice by cities, be sufficient? He explained that the document was prepared in the spirit of increasing transparency.

Transparency is more than disclosure. It's about access to information and the ability to use this information to meaningfully effect the decision-making process. A transparent government is one that allows for openness, discussion and criticism.

So what do we, as everyday citizens of Costa Mesa, really learn by knowing the identity — and compensation — of every employee? Does it improve our understanding of fiscal governance? Does it help us form a better opinion about whether we, as taxpayers, are getting a good return on our civic investment?

Revealing employee names — something few local governments include in their annual reports — does not, as Costa Mesa's website opines, help show "how the public's business is being conducted." Huntington Beach is one notable local exception; it also publishes salary data by name.

We all may be naturally curious about who earns what, but it's not relevant information.

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