James Madison once wrote that if men were angels, we wouldn't need government. And, he added, if government were run by angels, we wouldn't need to place controls and limitations on government. And while Madison didn't address it, it's easy to speculate that angel-run governments don't need the scrutiny afforded by public records laws. But mortals run our governments. Transparency and openness are required.
In Coeur d'Alene, city officials tell me it's impossible for them to reveal the names of the 360 workers in the government's employ. The wildly imaginative reason: Names make it easy to tell which employees are boys and which are girls.
Two weeks ago, I asked the city to produce the names, titles, departments and rates of pay for all city employees. So far, the Idaho Freedom Foundation has compiled a database that includes the names of more than 37,000 names of state and local employees. But Coeur d'Alene has taken the unprecedented step of telling me that employee first names are top secret.
"First names will not be provided because that would indicate gender. This is exempt from disclosure under Idaho Code 9-340C(1)," city human resources Director Pam MacDonald told me in an e-mail. In other words, anyone can tell that Ben is a boy's name, and the fact that Ben is a boy is information that the public isn't permitted to have.
If the city's interpretation of the law is correct (It's not, but let's pretend) it would mean that the public would be denied the ability to know the names of people in all government institutions, including our schools. You could know that Johnny's teacher is Mr. Roberts, but you couldn't know his first name is George. That means you wouldn't be able to find out anything more about Johnny's teacher than what Mr. Roberts and the school district want you to know. It would mean that memos and other documents that contain the names of city employees would be altered so you couldn't find out who authored an important government report. E-mail dispatches from City Hall or your local elementary school would arrive with a last name only.
Boise lawyer Allen Derr, in an interview with the Coeur d'Alene Press, also observed that the city's unique application of the law could also be used to prohibit disclosure of the employee's last name. That would occur under the basis that it might reveal a person's race, which is also protected information under state law. But state law was never designed to do that. Names of employees have always been a matter of public record. Period.
But why is it important for the public to know a public employee's first name? Because the basic components of transparency in government can't exist if something as integral as an employee's name is protected information. It's impossible to track an employee's progression through an agency over time. For example, perhaps you know that someone named "Hoffman" worked for the fire department in 2007. Today, there's someone named "Hoffman" working in the mayor's office. Same person? Don't know. And there's no way to tell. There is significantly more accountability and greater odds of knowing if the records show the employee is "Wayne Hoffman."
And maybe when Wayne Hoffman worked in the fire department, he earned just $7.80 an hour, but now he's earning $37.80 an hour. A curiously large raise in just two years? I'm willing to bet that Wayne Hoffman is just that good. But the public should want to make sure. Coeur d'Alene's ruling makes it impossible to analyze an employee's pay increases each year. Are those increases normal or abnormal? Are the mayor's buddies getting big raises while good employees languish? You can't tell unless you can make comparisons, and no accurate comparison can be made unless you can match names. Under Coeur d'Alene's interpretation of law, it's impossible to determine if raises are too high or too low, if women are being paid on par with men, if nepotism is occurring, whether the employees who have been hired have the right credentials or whether an employee has a criminal record.
I have no reason to suspect the city leaders of Coeur d'Alene of anything illegal or unseemly, but government officials should be willing to subject themselves to public scrutiny. That means answering questions about the people earning a government paycheck.
The government knows who I am. Why I can't we know who comprises the government? And if we can't know, one has to ask, are we the masters of the government or its servant?
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].