Saturday, September 04, 2010
Salary data brouhaha turns into open records law issue
by Larry Geller
I’ve received several emails asking why I haven’t weighed in on the controversy surrounding the list of salaries of Hawaii state workers by Civil Beat and its decision to post the list in a basically unusable form on their website, with access to more data only to those who pay.
I have left it pretty much alone because the topic belongs rightfully to Ian Lind and Ryan Ozawa, who have written about it extensively and are leading the conversation on the issues it presents. I’ve posted comments on both blogs as a way of participating. I didn’t see anyone representing Civil Beat there, although two of their contributors commented while distancing themselves from representing CB.
It is an important issue to me. After all, the data is a public record, in theory, available to anyone who asks. I say “in theory” because another part of the unfolding drama is that Ryan Ozawa has been denied the same data given to Civil Beat. Something’s wrong with that.
I’m not particularly keen on revealing everyone's salaries, though undoubtedly the data has research value. It’s that research that CB has blocked, at least with regard to the data they obtained. Ryan is working at making the same data available to everyone. Scholars, reporters, employees wondering if there is gender discrimination, etc. For the moment, Ryan’s data omits names.
The process issue interests me. Public records laws lose meaning if state officials simply shut off the spigot whenever they like. We paid for the data in advance, it belongs to us, speaking broadly.
I don’t understand why Ryan can be denied, so I filed my own request. I asked for a copy of the Civil Beat request (which is itself a public record), the same data supplied to CB, and a written copy of the department’s policy regarding record retention. That last request is because they should still, as required by law, have a copy of their response to Civil Beat, so that they could send the same info to Ryan or to any other requestor. As I understand it, their response to CB should be kept on file for one year.
So with that, I refer you to Ian Lind’s latest article, and to Ryan’s thread on this subject. An earlier article and comments are here. In that earlier article, Ryan describes how Civil Beat moved their watermark from the bottom of the data image to dead center of each slide. Ouch!
Ok, I gotta get a dig in. You can visit either website and participate in the discussion for free. Keep your credit card in your pocket.
A note to Civil Beat: Ryan Ozawa is a pioneer in new media in Hawaii. His blogs have been centers of information and conversation for years and appeal to a wide audience. He founded the Hawaii Association of Podcasters, encouraging many in the community to try their hand at what was then the newest of media. Ultimately, even Hawaii Public Radio came over to the podcasting camp. He and Burt Lum have an awesomely popular radio program on Wednesdays (5 p.m.) on HPR. Ryan’s Lost podcast was a national sensation.
Why the accolades (and I’m sure I’ve omitted much)? Just to suggest to the folks from out-of-town over there at Civil Beat that participating in Ryan’s conversation would be a darn good idea. Try posting comments on this issue on Hawaii Blog. No one is keeping you out. It’s where the action is. Forget expensive talks at the Plaza Club, just come visit the local blogs sometimes and participate more in our conversations.
Ryan and his blog merit even a billionaire’s attention I would think. He’s very much already where I think CB says it wants to be, a conversation leader in Hawaii. And he thinks the salary data should be freely available. He can make it happen, of course, and CB’s obscured version will become an example of something, whatever it is, unflattering.
End of dig.
Wow. Thanks for the accolades, Larry, but my head's big enough as it is. I think we all, collectively, aspire to raise the bar and deepen the conversation, and I don't think a topic can be owned by anyone. (Though surely citations and links are the currency we should generously trade in!) And yes, it's nice to have venues where you don't need to pay a membership fee -- even a discounted "commenters" fee -- to participate.
It is telling that Civil Beat is largely designed to have people come to them (on their site, Twitter, or Facebook), but representatives that do join the discussion elsewhere need clear disclaimers that they're not speaking for the company.
I can't wait to hear how your requests come out. I hadn't thought to ask for Civil Beat's actual requests as I've followed their requests around town, but they should prove to be interesting reading. Actually, any correspondence relating to those requests should also be dug up. For example, if Civil Beat sought a waiver in the public interest by talking about how they'd widely disseminate the information. Because I'm not sure if their solution meets the spirit of the criteria for such waivers.
What gets me, beyond CB’s refusal to make whatever they got available- for free- in the exact form(at) it was given to them, is their refusal to make clear exactly what and in what format was made available to them. To quote Doug... sheesh.
At least in the case of the DHRD request, their reporter wrote that they received a PDF. I'm pretty sure this is also confirmed in the comments on my blog, though of course those CB reporters are not speaking for CB.