Some cities struggle to provide public records

The I-Team began contacting local governments in January with a seemingly simple question: How much did you pay your employees last year?

Using Ohio’s public records laws, the I-Team requested that 17 Dayton-area cities, three counties and three large townships each cull from their payroll system a spreadsheet containing the names, titles, base pay, overtime pay and gross pay of each employee in 2014.

The city of Dayton balked, arguing that since no such report already exists, there is no such public record.

“(The city’s human resources department is) not sure when they will put together a database for 2014,” wrote city spokeswoman Toni Bankston ($87,000 salary). “They run these numbers as they need them internally. It will not include overtime, as it will be in the format as the 2013 database.”

This newspaper got its attorneys involved and obtained the database in mid-February, though city officials maintain they created it because it was requested by the city’s public employee unions.

Other governments expressed willingness to provide everything as requested but said they couldn’t because their payroll data is housed in antiquated systems. West Carrollton, for example, offered up 393 pages of printed records. Miami Twp. could muster only the hourly pay of its employees and W-2 forms.

City officials say their payroll systems are designed to pay their employees and generate tax reports, not to satisfy the public’s curiosity. Several jurisdictions assembled payroll data by hand to comply with the request.

“It’s not that we’re not trying to be transparent,” said Oakwood finance director Cindy Stafford ($103,853), noting that upgrading the city’s payroll system would come with a six-figure price tag at a time when budgets are strained.

“How do you justify spending that kind of funds, when we’re cutting people?” she said. “I’m sure our residents would rather have a new police car than me spend $100,000 (on a payroll system).”

Budget hawks such as Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, however, have called for legislation to require local governments to make payroll more transparent.

“All of this information is already a matter of public record, and as public officials we should do everything we can to leverage technology and apply common sense to have the information as accessible as possible to everyday citizens,” he said.

Mandel chided Dayton for not opening its books more willingly.

“When politicians in Dayton or any other part of the state hide public information, or make it hard to find, all they do is make citizens more cynical about our democratic system,” he said. “And they also exhibit a form of arrogance that is unfortunate among so many politicians.”

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