IN THE three years since we started posting public employee compensation data online, the Bay Area News Group has tracked $81.5 billion -- yes, with a "b" -- in tax dollars paid to public employees in salaries and for their health care, pensions and other costs of employment.
It's a huge number, yet it reflects only a fraction of what was spent on personnel in the state during that time. California is hip deep in government agencies: cities, counties and sewer, water, fire and school districts to name some.
All are subject to laws mandating the disclosure of how they spend tax dollars. We one day want to post data from every government entity in the state -- a Mt. Everest-like and dreamy goal. Of course we remain far from that achievement, and our databases at ContraCostaTimes.com/salaries don't even yet contain all of the Bay Area.
We don't even have complete data from the East Bay's biggest city, Oakland, even though in late March, Mayor Jean Quan promised our editorial board the data would be forthcoming. The same is true for the Oakland Unified School District, which has yet to release full 2010 compensation data despite an assurance from district spokesman Troy Flint more than a month ago that it would be provided. That data, like the city's, was first requested more than six months ago.
The California Public Records Act requires the government to take the broadest possible view of disclosure and to release information promptly. Both the city and the school district have provided only partial, unusable data and have ignored repeated requests for the rest of information needed to complete the database. It is not up the government to decide when a request is complete -- that's the public's territory.
Perhaps it is regional snobbery or simply because the Bay Area has such a rich culture of civic activism that we expect local governments to unflinchingly follow public records laws and be completely transparent.
Yet in Oakland, my colleague Daniel Willis and I can't even get e-mails returned about unfulfilled requests.
We do, however, get responses as we work to expand our data collection across the state. They often are not in compliance with the routine requests we file, at least not at first, but they are responses nonetheless.
In the wide swathes of rural California, where assertive and independent journalism gives way to locally orientated reportage by small homegrown news organizations, boat rocking seems to become rarer.
In fact, one doesn't even need to leave the region to receive correspondence from government officials that indicates they have little interaction with news organizations.
First, consider, how Jay Huyssoon, chief of the Cordelia Fire Protection District in Solano County, responded to our basic request for salary and employment figures for district employees. Courts have ruled such information should be readily provided to taxpayers.
"I have never heard of your organization nor am I familiar with any law that states I must give sensitive information to a group (of) individuals who may be terrorist in nature or scam artists," Huyssoon said in an e-mail response to our request. "I have received official looking letters from the FBI and the Office of the President of the United States. These turned out to be false.
"If you wish to come to this office, with credentials that will pass the scrutiny of a retired police officer working here, and ask your questions, that is fine by me."
The chief seems to not understand the basic tenants of the Public Records Act, which allows even anonymous requests, and specifically does not allow governments to screen requesters or ask why they want the information.
Further out in rural California, I heard from Calaveras County Supervisor Darren Spellman, who wrote back the following when I told county officials that their claim they had no records to release didn't make sense:
"Maybe you could at the very least confirm your credentials by identifying yourself and sharing pertinent information about yourself such as what university you graduated from, before becoming the purported journalistic professional you wish for us to believe you are."
Apparently, Mr. Spellman has little interaction with reporters.
But unlike Oakland officials, at least he wrote back.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group. The Watchdog appears monthly. Contact him at email@example.com.