Capital News Service
Advocates of open government scored a victory this week when legislators sent a proposal to a study commission. This proposal is aimed at blocking publication of public employees’ names and salaries.
A Senate panel voted unanimously to kill Senate Bill 812 for this legislative session. The bill was referred to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a state agency that encourages and facilitates compliance with open government laws, for further study.
SB 812, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Martin, R-Chesterfield, sought to restrict public access to the salaries paid to public employees by name. Currently, such information is open under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently posted a searchable online database containing the names, job titles and salaries of about 93,000 state employees.
The FOIA subcommittee of the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee recommended that SB 812 be “passed by indefinitely” and be sent to the FOIA Council. That agency will have time to carefully study and possibly modify the bill, said Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, who chairs both the Senate subcommittee and the FOIA Council.
“The FOIA Council provides that environment where you can have a much more concentrated time as opposed to the 10 or 15 minutes in subcommittee,” he said.
In the subcommittee meeting, Martin amended his bill so that it would not shield the salaries for all public employees. Instead, the amended bill would apply only to non-elected public employees who make less than the median salary.
Martin said he wanted to protect teachers, for example, from having all their students know exactly how much they earn.
A subcommittee member, Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, said that under the amendments, the public still would have access to the salaries of high-level employees such as university presidents.
Ruff said he felt that the salary ranges for government jobs were common knowledge anyway.
Media organizations opposed SB 812. They said the bill would prohibit them from acting as government watchdogs and publishing information important to citizens. Journalists said payroll records can show whether government employees are being paid fairly and whether some agencies engage in nepotism or corruption.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government had several concerns about Martin’s proposal.
“Having the names and salary information is in an important tool for citizens and the press to monitor public spending. It allows us to put the focus on people who have direct accountability through the government,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the coalition.
At the recommendation of the FOIA subcommittee, the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee on Wednesday also sent SB 1467 to the FOIA Council for study. That measure, sponsored by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, would allow citizens to view information about a police investigation as long as it is not active or ongoing.
The Virginia State Police and many legal organizations opposed SB 1467. They said investigative files often contain sensitive information like witnesses’ names and Social Security numbers. The files also might mention frivolous or baseless charges that were never filed.
Philip Van Cleave, leader of a pro-gun rights group, supported Edwards’ bill. He said citizens can use police records to check on how officers behave during an investigation.
“It is important to keep things transparent. We realize there are certain things that can’t be released, but this would be a step in the right direction,” Van Cleave said.