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Column: Public has a right to public data

Minnesota Statute 13.43 spells out what government personnel data is public. The long list includes name, identification number, salary, salary range, terms of employment, contract fees, pension, value and nature of paid fringe benefits, expense reimbursement and even payroll time sheets.

The Republican Eagle printed salaries of Red Wing School District administrators and teachers in the Nov. 10-11 edition.

A few teachers questioned why.

One argued that pay is personal information or should be treated as such. Another said talking about salaries is poor manners. One said names shouldn't have been listed. A fourth said the newspaper should have considered that publishing salaries might cause hard feelings in the work place.

But what public employees earn is public and should be made public -- and for good reasons.

Our government is founded on the principle of transparency or, as the Founding Fathers put it, a government of, by and for the people.

Citizens have a right to know how their taxes are spent. When you consider that payroll is typically the largest government expense -- salaries equal 47 percent and benefits equal 19 percent of Red Wing School District's nearly $37 million 2012-13 budget, while Goodhue County's figures are 34.9 percent salaries, 12.3 percent benefits in the 2012 $54 million budget -- you can understand why the state law is so broad, why courts repeatedly side with keeping the specifics public and why newspapers publish these stories.

Names clearly are synonymous with teaching positions. Writing "an eight-year teacher on step three, lane four of the salary grid earns $48,000" means nothing to the average reader. Knowing that your son's favorite teacher earns $48,000 means a lot.

We published the teacher and administrative salaries now because teachers just finalized the 2011-13 contract in September. They received back pay Oct. 31.

Publication also resulted in numerous readers contacting the paper. All but one asked for more.

Most citizens don't have the time to track down this information or don't know how. On occasion, a few readers have told us they encountered resistance and hassles from public entities -- "What do you want it for?" "You don't really need it," etc. -- that stopped them from getting the information that belongs to them.

Republican Eagle then serves as the readers' advocate.

This is why we ran the story and why we will do the same for city and county department heads once the 2013 budgets are finalized. We will continue publishing salary stories as school, city and county bargaining groups finalize their contracts.

Several Forum Communications Co. newspapers run salaries every year. There's a renewed emphasis on doing so here at the Republican Eagle.

If we shy away from publishing public salaries, we imply that the information is private and unimportant. The opposite is true: We believe that the more information people have, the more informed and involved they can be in their government. This keeps our democracy open, honest and responsive.

Every day, all across Minnesota, newspapers weigh the public's right to know against an individual's right to privacy. This is one of them, and the public's right and need to know prevails as it should in our free society.

Anne Jacobson

Anne Jacobson has been editor of the Republican Eagle since December 2003. 

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