City Salaries and Civil Beat

Today, Honolulu Civil Beat continued its coverage of government transparency and public worker salaries with its latest data set: employees of the City & County of Honolulu. As in the past, the data isn’t entirely easy to access, so as before, a friend has helped me make most of it freely available.

But what may be more interesting is what information the city didn’t disclose, and the debate over whether publication might put some employees at risk.

City Employee Data for Free

For those interested in city employee names, positions and salaries, the online news site offers “a searchable database for full members to make the data more accessible,” but people who don’t pay up can only browse a read-only watermarked PDF on Slideshare.

Anticipating this, I filed my own information request with the city’s Department of Human Resources, and they provided a 96-page PDF report containing 7,815 employee names, titles, and salaries. Fellow blogger Larry Geller helped me extract the data and put it into basic spreadsheet format.

I’ve just posted the data online, which you can freely review, download, and manipulate to your heart’s content. The information has been added to the Hawaii Open Data Project, alongside employee and salary lists for state employees (including the judiciary, the legislature, and the University of Hawaii)… with other data sets to come.

But there are some names missing from the city’s provided data sets.

For one, the data I received did not include employees at the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which is a semi-autonomous agency. (Civil Beat acquired those names as well, and included them in their report.) But information on a second category of city employee turned out to be particularly sensitive.

Officers Not Included

In its response to my request, Noel Ono of the city Department of Human Resources noted that the information they provided does not include police officers employed by the Honolulu Police Department. He noted that Hawaii’s public information laws exclude “present or former employees involved in an undercover capacity in a law enforcement agency,” and since many police officers could potentially work undercover, separating them out would require more time, and more resources.

Specifically, a “manual search” would cost me $4,120, or half the estimated cost of searching, reviewing, and segregating information regarding police officers.

I decided I could live without those names. But Civil Beat, receiving the same response, committed considerable time and effort into arguing for their release. Indeed, I think the debate is far more interesting than the data involved. Read on for a closer look.

Civil Beat At Work

I’ve followed the birth and evolution of Civil Beat since well before its launch, and remain a fan of its great team and overall focus on civic reporting and investigative journalism. Obviously, I take issue with their practice of charging for unfettered access to data that ultimately belongs to the public, but the most common defenses to the practice are reasonable:

  1. Anyone can get the same information themselves.
  2. It costs time and money to get the information.

I’ve done what I can on that first point. And on the second, I agree, Civil Beat has put considerable effort into promoting government transparency. These efforts are perhaps perfectly illustrated in its fight for the names and salaries of police officers.

The story is told, in part, through correspondence exchanged between Civil Beat and the city, which Civil Beat has published online. The back-and-forth is fascinating, at least to me, and the argument is an important one.

At first, the city Department of Human Resources was willing to go as far as providing titles and salaries, but stopped short of handing over employee names. On Sept. 7, City Corporation Counsel Carrie Okinaga asked the Office of Information Practices for help:

While the City agrees strongly, too, that the public has a right to know how its money is being spent, we would appreciate guidance from your office as to the propriety of such a response. The City has received comments from its employees regarding their concerns about the disclosure of what they believe to be inherently private information. In addition, the City is aware that at least one exclusive employee representative (“union”) has been looking into the legal ramifications of disclosing this information. The City requests that your office provide guidance and information with regards to the City’s obligation to respond to this request.

In her five-page letter to OIP acting director Cathy Takase, Okinaga suggests that omitting names would represent a “balancing of interests.” She also notes that Civil Beat charges membership fees for unrestricted access to all of its posted information. “So while Civil Beat may cite public interest as its motivation,” she writes, “clearly private interest is also part of its motivation.”

And Okinaga made a number of other arguments, including the desire to protect the privacy interests of employees, and that city employee morale could be impacted if they compare their salaries to other employees.

In considering how the disclosure might affect her own team, she adds, “I am concerned about retention of our attorneys in this environment.”

But the most contested piece of the requested information involved law enforcement personnel on the city payroll. Okinaga cited HRS 92F-12(a)(14), which states that the City is not required to disclose “information regarding present or former employees involved in an undercover capacity in a law enforcement agency.” She argued that the exclusion should be applied more broadly.

“There are law enforcement employees that are not currently operating undercover, but may do so in the future, so disclosing their names would have an impact on the health and safety of these individuals,” Okinaga writes.

She adds that the disclosure of the identity of other law enforcement personnel, regardless of undercover status, could be dangerous as well, such as prosecutors, and liquor commission investigators.

Nonetheless, the OIP essentially told the city that it is required to provide the information. Takase replied to Okinaga in a Sept. 15, 2010 letter:

The city has raised a variety of privacy and frustration concerns over the requested disclosure of the names, job titles, and salaries of all City employees. OIP understands some of the City’s concerns. However, given the Legislature’s clear intent to require this information to be made available and to not allow application of exceptions for privacy and frustration, OIP is constrained to find that these concerns cannot be considered by OIP under 92F-12, but must instead be addressed to the Legislature.

Civil Beat was elated, and posted an article titled, “Hawaii’s open records law applies to you too, Honolulu.” Of course the article is behind the Civil Beat paywall, but human resources director Ono apparently saw enough to fire off a snippy letter to reporter Nanea Kalani:

We note that all of the links you provide your readers in your article entitled, “Hawaii’s Open Records Law Applies to You, Too, Honolulu,” you do not provide our letter to the OIP staring our concerns. In fact, your article misleads the reader to believe that the OIP opinion was issued not at the city’s request, but at yours. You know this is untrue. Attached, please find another copy of the City’s letter, which you will hopefully add along with this email to your “story,” so that your readers may have a broader understanding of the issues involved, know that the City did respond with information that you never retrieved, and know that the OIP opinion was no “vindication,” but a measured response to the City’s reasonable inquiry.

I love the quote marks around the word “story.”

In the same letter, Ono again suggested that Civil Beat reconsider the inclusion of the most sensitive personnel information:

With respect to law enforcement personnel… please know that complying with your request for the names of all law enforcement personnel will threaten the ability of the City to conduct undercover operations, or endanger lives. If you are willing to discuss limiting your request, please contact me… Otherwise, we will be asking OIP for guidance as to how to proceed.

Civil Beat editor John Temple stepped in as Kalani’s supervisor on Sept. 20, responding to Ono’s letter. He noted that Civil Beat didn’t pick up the compiled records because Ono’s office failed to comply with the request and because the data was not in electronic format.

Temple pointed out that the state provided the names of corrections officers and deputy sheriffs, and that undercover officers would most likely not use their real names. Nontheless, Temple says that he was willing to accept the suggested limitation… but reserved the right to challenge it in the future.

“We do not accept the idea that the possibility of future undercover work is a legitimate reason not to disclose the identities of police employees, nor are we prepared to discuss that possibility,” he writes. “That exception could lead to an essentially secret police force, where the public doesn’t know the names of the people given the power of the badge and gun, something that is contrary to the principles of an open society.”

Open Questions

Are police officers at greater risk than other city employees, or state law enforcement personnel? Does protecting the names of police officers create the potential for a police state? It’s an interesting debate for anyone interested in privacy and government transparency. And it’s not over yet.

In publishing its city employee roster, Civil Beat simply included a footnote that read, “The list did not include 2,072 sworn police officers. Civil Beat is in talks with the Honolulu Police Department about those salaries.”

We shall see whether those talks will be continued through correspondence with the Office of Information Practices, or escalate to legal action. In the latter case, Civil Beat may very well prove the value it offers to a community beyond the means of your average blogger.

4 Responses

  1. kerryrm says:

    Thanks for taking the time to request and share the data properly, Ryan. It is really a pity Civil Beat hasn’t seen the light when it comes to releasing public data. Perhaps one day. It’s also a shame that this salary “transparency” has become their M.O..

    Regardless, quite an interesting tale. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  2. Fu Manchu says:

    Mahalo for your continued commitment to this project. I find your narrative about Civil Beat’s difficulties in obtaining this information a lot more interesting than the actual “stories”
    Civil Beat actually offers.

  3. Ragnar Carlson says:

    Shocking, truly, that the City took a position that public-interest journalism is, in significant part, a private-interest endeavor. This is a new argument, one that has to my knowledge rarely been applied in the long history of western journalism — even though almost all major newsgathering operations in the United States are private, for-profit entities and always have been.

  4. line of flight says:

    Civil Beat’s charging for public information is not a new practice. Title researchers, real estate agents, insurance adjustors, debt collectors and lawyers have been buying and selling this public information forever.

    What is radical is calling it journalism where journalism has historically valued and the public has valued the analyzing of the raw data in an expedient ‘newsworthy’ fashion, but like academic fields, has subsequently shared the data after an analysis has been done to verify the conclusions and allow for a full public debate.

    The Civil Beat people feel otherwise, naturally, and that is open for discussion because it is a radical departure from the past. the title companies and information services that provide raw public records at a cost have never referred to themselves as journalists and have never called their services news reporting.

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