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SPJ encourages Nevada court to release public records to newspaper


For Immediate Release:

Dave Aeikens, SPJ President, 320-255-8744,
Dave Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman, 520-626-9694, cuillier@email.arizona.edu
Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-927-8000 ext. 211, sleadingham@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists urge the second district court of Nevada to dispense with an injunction and release public information, including names and salaries of public servants, to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

In mid October, the Gazette-Journal made several public records requests for information pertaining to employee names, position, salary, overtime and benefits of public employees working for the cities of Reno and Sparks, Nevada, and Washoe County, among other public entities. The newspaper made the request under the state’s Public Records Act.

In requesting the information, the Gazette-Journal wished to review public spending for the 2007 fiscal year in light of budgetary shortfalls and a downturn in the economy. The newspaper emphasized that it was not seeking the names of any public officials who work undercover. Further, the newspaper pointed out that such information is already partially available in public forums, on city and county Web sites, and in documents handed out at public meetings.

Although authorities in Reno, Sparks and Washoe County agreed to release the information, nine unions representing the affected employees objected on the grounds that the release of information with the names of employees attached would create undue harm and hardship for employees and their families. Unions representing law enforcement officers, such as the Reno Police Protective Association, among other public employee groups, immediately sought to prevent the cities and county from releasing the information by filing a temporary restraining order. The order went into effect Oct. 28 and lasts 15 days. The unions have also filed motions for preliminary and permanent injunctions, which, if agreed to by the district court, would further bar the newspaper from receiving the data.

“We urge the judge to release the information. Employee salaries, including the names, are the most basic of public information and should be easily accessible for all,” SPJ President Dave Aeikens said. “Members of the general public would be able to get it if they walked into the government agency and asked for it. The newspaper is just doing the public a service and offering it on its Web site.”

Salaries of taxpayer-supported public employees are routinely made public throughout the nation. More than twenty states have specific laws making public employee salaries public, and in other states the information is deemed open through case law and common practice. Some states even require by law that agencies post public employee salaries online, and many agencies do so voluntarily in the spirit of transparency.

“When it comes to the spending of public money, taxpayers have a right to see where their dollars are going,” said Dave Cuillier, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee Chairman. “In the past, newspapers have used this information to reveal agencies that gouge taxpayers through overtime abuse, nepotism and corruption.”

Although the claim by the unions that the release of names of non-undercover employees still presents a risk to employees and their families, Cuillier points out there are holes in such reasoning.

“The unions argue that if the public see the names of police officers then people might try to find where they live and then harass them. That is not a credible argument,” said Cuillier. “If people want to find police officers to harass them they can do so in many different ways. Making the information secret won’t protect employees – it will only foster civic mistrust and breed corruption.”

The current restraining order will expire Nov. 12. A formal hearing date to review the motions of preliminary and permanent injunction has not been set.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well- informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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