In early August 2010, the fledgling Honolulu Civil Beat was covering these stories:

  • Gov. Linda Lingle’s nomination of Katherine Leonard to be Hawaii’s next Supreme Court chief justice was shot down by the state Senate.
  • Honolulu mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell said the city needed to spend $150 million to repave roads.
  • The Hawaii State Teachers Association endorsed Neil Abercrombie for governor.

And yet, the most popular story on its website at the time was this one: “Civil Beat Shares Hawaii State Employee Salaries.”

Only a few months on the scene, our traffic went through the proverbial roof. Publishing the searchable database helped put Civil Beat on the media map.

Every update of the salaries, including the latest (for fiscal year 2018), has proved immensely popular.

Speaker Scott Saiki Gov Ige State state.
House Speaker Scott Saiki wants to make some public employee salary information less transparent. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Founding Editor John Temple said the reason for making the salaries public is that it’s the public’s money that is being spent.

“State salary information — that is, the way the state spends its taxpayers’ money — provides an important view into how our state works and how we got to where we are,” he wrote back then. “In a state in which payroll makes up 60 percent of the general fund, we believe it is important to have this information available for everyone.”

As popular as the database has proven to be, there have also been dissenters. A local media buddy of mine once remarked how unfortunate it would be for employees to learn that colleagues are paid more.

In some cases, that may be about to change.

House Bill 1768 and its companion Senate Bill 2870 would replace exact compensation figures for state “legislative employees,” as the bills state, with salary ranges. The ranges would follow those used by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission (for example, “At least $25,000 but less than $50,000”).

The bills do not indicate exactly which employees would be impacted, nor how many there are.

“From a management perspective, ranges should hopefully be sufficient.” — Speaker Scott Saiki

“I understand that these are workers paid with public funds — I get that,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki, the House’s bill’s author. “But I have two concerns about the disclosure of specific salary amounts. One is that I believe there is a personal privacy issue, and the second is from a management perspective.”

Saiki said that he has found since becoming speaker in May that it can be difficult to staff legislative positions when people know what everyone else is earning.

“So from a management perspective, ranges should hopefully be sufficient,” he said.

Exact salary amounts would still remain for department directors and deputy directors, he said.

The Civil Beat database already includes salary ranges rather than exact pay levels for many other government employees, so in one sense Saiki is merely looking to expand the vagueness.

“I don’t see a compelling need to disclose specific salary amounts for legislative staff members,” he said.

Brian Black from the Civil Beat Law Center presents oral arguments at the Supreme Court, Aliiolani Hale. 1 june 2017
Brian Black of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest said Saiki’s salary range bill too broad. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Brian Black, executive director of the nonprofit Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, sees things differently.

He said in written testimony that the bill “sweeps far too broadly” and that it deviates from the original intent of the law, saying, “exempting all legislative employees from the mandatory disclosure requirement regardless whether that person has managerial duties. For example, the bill improperly exempts individuals who are more equivalent to Executive Branch directors and deputy directors. The public interest in high-level staff (e.g., chief clerks, sergeants-at-arms, legislative service agency directors, and others in senior positions) is much greater, and they should not be exempt.”

Black continued: “Withholding the auditor, (Legislative Reference Bureau) director, and ombudsman salaries also does not make sense because their salaries are tied to the (Department of Health) director’s salary, which is public record.”

And, because legislative employees are appointed and not subject to the civil service system, Black noted that their salaries are discretionary.

Black advised that HB 1768 be amended so that salary ranges for legislative employees not exceed a $15,000 range.

HB 1768, which has a hearing Tuesday morning, is championed in the Senate by Assistant Majority Whip Gil Keith-Agaran.

Redacting Salary Ranges

Saiki has another bill that aims to change salary disclosures.

House Bill 2192 calls for redacting day-job salary range information for non-paid volunteers of state boards.

“My concern is that the disclosure of financial amounts hinders the ability to recruit different kinds of people for very significant boards and commissions,” he said.

Saiki was inspired to write the bill after a meeting with University of Hawaii regents emeritus who griped about the salary range disclosure. He also pointed to media reports in which two regents resigned rather than have the information made public.

Saiki said other financial information such as property, stock and previous employers would still be required on the forms.

Black took no position on HB 2192, whose companion Senate Bill 2609 comes from Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz.

But the Civil Beat Law Center in 2015 went to court to seek the release of the financial disclosure statements of the members of the regents, the Land Use Commission and the Agribusiness Development Corporation. Two members of the latter two boards had asked that the Hawaii Supreme Court to keep that info confidential.

The contretemps arose after the Legislature added 15 boards and commissions to the list of those whose members already had to file public disclosure statements. It included the regents.

The result of the law center’s legal challenge? The records stayed public.

My take on Saiki’s bills?

I think government service requires that the public and media have access to important details so that they can sniff out any potential conflict of interest.

But then, we live in a country in which the president of the United States refuses to share his tax returns.

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