Look at it this way FOI loss feels like a win
I’m not good at losing.
And yet, contrary to a headline on the front page of the Stamford Advocate (“Government Center 1: Advocate 0”), I don’t really feel like we lost a Freedom of Information (FOI) battle with the City of Stamford Wednesday.
A former editor filed the complaint alleging the city did not promptly respond to a request for payroll records. I participated in an FOI Commission hearing last July in which four city employees, including city attorney Amy LiVolsi (a former member of the commission), contended that the document took four months and many hours on the taxpayers’ dime to compile.
The city didn’t deny the information was public record. They just happened to release it hours after the complaint was filed, some four months after it was requested.
The commission dismissed the complaint, buying the city’s defense that the document didn’t exist when we requested it.
Me, not so much.
Which is one reason this doesn’t feel like a loss.
The two hours of defensive play by LiVolsi, the city comptroller, a payroll numbers runner and the mayor’s assistant provided more transparency than we hoped for.
They cracked open the hood for a peek at the engine. We didn’t expect a BMW X5, but were pretty horrified to get Stamford’s version of the notorious Yugo 55.
Translation: They claimed victory by showing how poorly the city machine runs.
It’s really a win-win; we got the data plus an admission that 888 Washington Blvd. bookkeepers are as overwhelmed as the HR department at the White House.
Because I’m so bad at losing, though, that wasn’t enough. I never believed the commission would slap the city with a deadline, though they deserve one. Advocate/Greenwich Time Managing Editor Tom Mellana expressed the lingering problem deftly: “If four months was acceptable to the FOI Commission, would six months have been OK? A year? At what point does the information become public in name only?”
Faced with a no-win scenario, I took the approach of Capt. James T. Kirk facing the Kobayashi Maru test (37-year-old plot spoiler: Kirk cheated).
A couple weeks ago, I asked a colleague at the New Haven Register (a fellow Hearst paper) to submit an identical request.
It’s a fair comparison. After all, Stamford is a rugby team away from overtaking New Haven as the second most populated city in the state. Let’s toss them both in a scrum and see who comes up with the ball.
The Register emailed Mayor Toni Harp’s office at 3:17 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6.
“I am writing to request under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act an electronic copy of the 2018 salaries of all city employees, broken down by total earnings, base pay, overtime, and police extra-duty pay.”
It’s a big ask, especially if you’ve never gotten it before. So Communications Director Laurence Grotheer consulted corporation counsel, which worked with payroll and human resources.
They emailed the information to an editor at 10:12 a.m. Monday. In two formats. Yes, a little more than two business days lapsed.
Grotheer said the New Haven process was streamlined because the document existed.
Stamford claims it has to create the document every year even though the Advocate has been publishing a version of it since the 1980s.
Greenwich took about a month to respond to a reporter’s recent request for similar information.
As I explained in a column last June, Stamford officials reliably produced the list within weeks until Mayor David Martin’s tenure, even back when a floppy disc was cause for celebration after years of paper documents.
The lists are catnip for readers. They are also revealing. Municipalities should have easy access to such lists to manage staff and resources.
Let’s compare some New Haven numbers with Stamford’s. Oops, we still don’t have the latter for 2018. We’ll have to run Stamford’s numbers from 2017.
The top earner in New Haven was police Sgt. Paul Finch with $271,009, which included overtime and side job pay. Stamford’s chart-topper was police Capt. Richard Conklin with earnings of $399,128.
The difference between the top earners for each city is $128,119, which will get you a firefighter in Stamford or a fire captain in New Haven.
Subtract the take-home pay of the top-five earners in New Haven from their Stamford counterparts and you can pocket $429,633. That could fund a few teachers.
These salaries are worth careful analysis, given that wages and benefits represent 80 percent of Stamford’s budget.
There’s also the matter of equity. There are only two women among the top 20 earners in New Haven, including the superintendent of schools. That’s double the number in Stamford.
So let’s rewrite the headline: “Government Center 1, Taxpayers 0.”
John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time. email@example.com; twitter.com/johnbreunig