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

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.

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.

Certainly, public-sector employees, like everyone else, do not expect their salaries and benefits to be plastered over the Internet. Just because they work for the public does not mean they give up all rights to their privacy. They are not public officials, who volunteered to be openly scrutinized and judged by the community that elected them.

Unfortunately for city staff, this is the second year in a row the report has included employee names. After last year's contentious election, and a promise for more cooperation from the council majority, I was hoping to see real movement toward détente. Eliminating the names this year would have helped repair the damage and build more trust between the council majority and the employees.

As well, it would have facilitated more amicable contract negotiations between the city and the employee associations. The general employees' association contract, which expires Sunday, will be the first subject to the Civic Openness in Negotiations (COIN) ordinance. By producing the report with individual identities, the city unnecessarily undermined what is really an experiment in transparency. For COIN to be effective, both parties need to start with a cooperative mindset.

Even more troubling is the fact that this report doesn't exactly improve employee morale in the workplace. Exposing a colleague's salary and other benefits does not encourage camaraderie, promote cooperation or foster a team environment. It's more likely to do just the opposite.

The report also falls short of providing meaningful context. It contains no final tally to show how much we're actually spending to provide services to our community. It fails to show the total dollars in relation to the city's overall budget. And it neglects to provide any type of comparison to previous years' spending.

These pieces of information are genuinely helpful to those of us who want to understand how our tax dollars are spent. For example, comparing the number of current employees and their respective compensation packages in the city CEO's office (or the Police Department, or Development Services, etc.) to the number a few years back could shed some light on the changing management structure and whether operational shifts are serving us well.

I appreciate the city's efforts to make more information about its operations available to the community and believe transparency is a laudable goal. Bringing all facts into the daylight, though, is not an end in itself. We should strive to build a government that is also respectful, collaborative and inclusive.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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