OpenGov Voices: Is “sue them” the next “best disinfectant?” /cms/images/spacer.gif

March 3, 2014 10:12 AM
by guest author Adam Andrzejewski, Sunlight Foundation

Transparency is the foundation of smart government because it answers key questions in public policy: "How much does government really cost?" and "Are there indications of waste, fraud or corruption?"

If the citizenry does not know the impact government has on their lives, it has no ability to exercise its right of oversight. The virtue of citizen engagement is provided for in the U.S. Constitution, Article I Section IX: "A regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time." In the electronic age, we believe that means "every dime, online, in real time" — publishing all publicly disclosable records.

Last week, my organization, American Transparency, added 4.643 million California records to our online database. We now show federal, state and local salary and pension records in the Golden State. If you visit, you’ll find that the top 14,647 "highly compensated" public employees cost taxpayers nearly $5 billion per year in payroll, benefits and pension. This new data will add context to the pension and spending debates taking place in California.

While there have been improvements in transparency, getting data from California was too difficult. When we filed our open records request for all public salaries with the California Controller, the response contained over four million records with employee names redacted. We were forced to file the many requests directly with the smaller units of local government.

Many of these local government units were very resistant to transparency. For example, the San Luis Obispo County Pension Trust rejected our request for the names of its 2,503 active employees citing the lack of a current domestic violence poll and no plan to survey employees. Then, the Trust denied our request for wages citing "the need to create an additional report and added staff manual work."

The Trust released only useless information to us. If an unquantified "work burden" can be used as an exception to deny information, then the exception has become the rule. How does a California citizen engage in the pension debate without access to real data? In fact, the widening government claims of "harm," "undue burden" and "privacy" threaten the very existence of meaningful open records law.

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Other units, like the San Bernardino County Employees Retirement System, said they would fulfill our request for a total fee of $13,200. The Sacramento City Employees' Retirement System wants $4,800 while still redacting member contributions. In total, various California entities want to charge us fees adding up to $29,632.04.

In effect, these entities are saying, "Sue us," gambling that most organizations lack the will or the wallet to enforce transparency. Is it "legal activism" when we have to sue just to preserve our basic right to open government? The books on private property were opened by county governments levying property taxes, and today the granular details of our private homes and commercial properties are published online. But citizens are forced to sue to open the books on government?

In Illinois, the Republican comptroller rejected our request for just one year of the state checkbook claiming an "undue burden" exception. We sued. After a year and $52,000 in legal fees, we have received most of the data from 2005-2013, but are continuing the case to drive a judgment and establish important case law. At the federal level, our request for all pensions was rejected as "a clear unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The government interpretation of federal privacy law will have to be tested in court.

Hard data drives citizen action. Since 2011, when went live, we demonstrated impact. When we showcased a three year city manager contract worth $1 million, he eventually resigned. A municipal Home Rule tax referendum was defeated 86% to 14%, with volunteers showing voters’ historical salary data. A local school treasurer was indicted for allegedly stealing $1.5 million after we exposed a massive unauthorized salary spike.

Together, we must aggressively insist that our right to open records has a vigorous moral and legal defense.

Adam Andrzejewski is the founder of Its goal is to make low-level financial information requests obsolete through the creation of a scalable data commons of "every dime" taxed and spent at every level of government. They have so far posted 750 million lines of public spending online, with a goal of acquiring 2 billion lines. Information posted on their website includes nearly all disclosed federal checkbook spending (contracts, loans, grants, payments, insurance and farm subsidies) and five year salary histories of 2.5 million federal employees; state checkbooks in 41 states; and at least partial salary or pension data in 36 states.

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