Transparency protects taxpayers
Sunshine Week a reminder of the importance of open government
- Monday, March 12, 2012
Less than two weeks ago, citizens learned that the amount of sick leave taken by Clark County firefighters had dropped by 57,000 hours over the last two years — including a stunning 90 percent decrease in sick leave taken by battalion chiefs.
The ongoing investigations into sick-leave abuse by county firefighters, spearheaded by Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, received the credit for the stunning drop in sick leave — and rightfully so. Without Sisolak braving death threats and demanding an investigation, taxpayers would still be forced to pay overtime to cover the firefighters who coordinated "sick" days, sometimes scheduling them months in advance, in order to boost overtime pay and extend vacations.
But there is an often-overlooked factor in that story — the role of transparency.
In 2008, the Nevada Policy Research Institute launched TransparentNevada.com, which featured information on public-employee salaries. For the first time, the public, media members and, yes, even elected officials could easily see how much public employees made.
Brought to light, the salaries of valley firefighters were stunning. Dozens of Clark County firefighters made nearly as much or more in overtime and call-back pay than they earned in base salary, including Sam Centofante, whose base salary in 2007 was $83,513, but who took home $103,983 in overtime and call-back pay.
Year after year, as TransparentNevada continued to release salary information, public outrage grew. From columns in the Las Vegas Review-Journal to TV-station investigations to print articles detailing abuses, to Sisolak's leadership, citizens understood exactly how Clark County firefighters were burning through taxpayer dollars.
That is the power and importance of transparency in government.
It is because of experiences like this that hundreds of good-government organizations, libraries, schools and media outlets around the country celebrate Sunshine Week, March 11-17, 2012. Sunshine Week is a yearly opportunity to highlight the importance of open government and accessible public records.
For numerous reasons, government must remain open and transparent.
The most important is that citizens have a right to know how government spends their money. Unlike a private organization or business, which must rely on voluntary transactions to earn money, government simply makes its taxes and laws mandatory. Given government's ability and authority to compel your support and to restrict your actions, citizens must have some foolproof way to learn how their money is being spent and how government is using its power.
As numerous examples in Nevada show, the need for transparency is not merely theoretical.
Open records allow citizens to know that unions in Clark County — private organizations — annually receive over $4.6 million in taxpayer subsidies. The most egregious contract is between the City of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which receives over one million tax dollars and 15,500 leave hours a year so union members can do union work.
Open records proved that North Las Vegas firefighter and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera double dipped during his time in Carson City. When a Nevada Journal investigation exposed that Oceguera was paid by North Las Vegas while he was working full time in Carson City, NLV fire chief Al Gillespie produced a poorly written agreement specifying Oceguera was to be paid for nine hours of work a week and wrote the same in a letter to the editor published by the Review-Journal.
Public records, however, showed Oceguera received pay for around 18 hours a week during the 2011 legislative session. In the end, Oceguera paid the city back 72 hours using accrued time off, about half of the time for which he "incorrectly" took pay.
Open records are also having a powerful impact across the country. In 2010, the Los Angeles Times revealed that the city manager of Bell, Calif., which has a population under 40,000, took home over $1.5 million a year and part-time city council members earned almost $100,000 a year. Eight former city leaders are currently being charged criminally for exorbitant salaries and other schemes to line their pockets.
Some public servants "get it," however. Earlier this year, the City of Reno unveiled TransparentReno.com, an open-government website that includes the city's checkbook online. It's a terrific and easy-to-use site that state government and other local governments should emulate.
For every Reno, though, there's a Clark County School District, which routinely delays, sometimes for months, replies to public-record requests, or a PERS board, which currently is appealing a court ruling requiring it to release names and pension payouts.
Sunshine Week is the perfect reminder that open, accountable government is the right of every citizen and must be practiced at every level of government.
Victor Joecks is the communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.