Uproar Over Michigan Editor Posting Salary Database

By: Mark Fitzgerald Lansing (Mich.) State Journal Executive Editor Mickey Hirten says he doesn't entertain any second thoughts about posting the salaries of 53,000 Michigan state employees on the newspaper's Web site, despite loud protests from many of the workers and their unions.

In an interview Friday, Hirten said the uproar was inevitable -- and he rejects criticism that the newspaper erred by simply posting the salary information without any accompanying investigative or analytical stories.

"We put it up because we felt with the budget up for debate, and with Michigan just in a crisis, that the public should have this information," he said. "But the issue isn't the budget, it really isn't, and it isn't the context -- it's that people just don't want their salaries published, even though it is public information."

In online comments and threatened boycotts, the Journal has been attacked from many sides, including public employee unions and at least one freedom of information (FOI) advocate who believes posting the salaries will set back the cause of open government in Michigan.

"Michigan has a terrible FOI climate and, I want to underscore that, a terrible FOI climate compared to others states I've worked in," former CNN investigative reporter Pat Clawson said.

"There's a knee-jerk tendency to secrecy. Where I fault Mickey Hirten is that I have a real problem with publishing bulk records just for the sake of saying, we can publish these things. It was a big data dump on the public. There was nothing about why this is in the interest of the public," added Clawson, who said he has for months been organizing the Jerry Buckley Society, a new Michigan open-government group named after a Prohibition-era Detroit radio journalist murdered by mobsters.

Union leaders and dozens of people leaving comments at the Journal's Data Connection site complained that the information left public employees at risk of identity theft and stalking.

The posting of the 53,000 non-exempt public employees includes name, title, department, county of the workplace, and salary. It does not include Social Security numbers or dates of birth.

But the information still puts workers at risk, said Alan Kilar, financial secretary/treasurer for United Auto Workers Local 6000, which represents about 17,000 of the 53,000 employees in the database.

"We have people in children's protective services, in probation departments, police, and people get killed all the time, or you have people who are trying to hide from an ex-boyfriend or a spouse," Kilar said. "We're not upset about the release of the salaries, because that's public information. It's the release of the other information that we're upset about, definitely. We think this is classic poor journalism."

Kilar said the union suspects "politics" is behind the posting of the database, arguing that it comes as the state is considering adopting so-called "right-to-work" laws that organized labor has long opposed.

Individual unionized workers have organized subscription and advertising boycotts, Kilar said.

Journal Executive Editor Hirten, however, said Friday afternoon, more than two days after the paper posted the database, that he's seen no evidence of a boycott.

"There's been nothing," he said. "I haven't heard from the unions at all. Not one thing."

Hirten said there is a misperception that the newspaper posted the salaries because it was trying to show government employees are overpaid. The paper is simply offering the information for people to judge for themselves, he said.

The great majority of the complaints are coming from state employees, Hirten said. "The taxpayers -- the boss, so to speak, the ones paying these salaries -- that's the side that hasn't been heard from in this debate. That's who this is for, to let them know who they're paying and what they're paying."

As well as being the biggest complainers about the database, state employees are its most frequent users, Hirten added: "We can tell who's using it, and the people reading this are the state workers. And it's not like they're looking for their own salary to make sure it's accurate -- they're cruising this thing.

"So there's some measure of hypocrisy here, too."


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