January 14, 2010
|City Withholding Police Pay Info|
Greensboro has a new city manager, Rashad Young, who has promised an open and transparent government. But after three months as the city manager, the city has the same old policy on public records, which is a deliberate and obstinate refusal to obey the law for as long as possible. Fortunately, the city also has a new mayor, Bill Knight, and some new and old city councilmembers who can force a change.
Knight and Councilmembers Trudy Wade and Danny Thompson all contacted the manager's office about the inability of The Rhino Times to get public records and things started happening. As we went to press, City Attorney Terry Wood called and assured me that we would get the information we requested and said that he would write the attorney general and ask for an opinion on some further information. Wood and I had spoken earlier, but he was not familiar with the request, so he didn't have answers.
Since Wood has been city attorney, he has always made certain that we have been provided the records that the city agrees are public, and in this case he agrees these records are public. Wood came through for us again in this case. The problem is that councilmembers and the city attorney should not have to get involved in a request for public records.
Changes at the top don't matter if they don't result in changes on the ground, and at the level of dealing with the public the same people are in place, pushing the same wrong-headed policies they were in the administration of former City Manager Mitch Johnson.
Assistant City Manager Denise Turner has spent hours and hours of city staff time working on a new public records policy. The result at ground level is that now when you make a public records request you get an automatic email response from Communications Manager Jim Collins that says, "**DO NOT REPLY TO THIS EMAIL!!**
"Thank you for your public records request. It has been forwarded to the proper area of city government for response. If you have questions please contact me at 373-3302 or at the above email address."
You get the city's message even if it is a verbal request that you know the person heard. It is annoying because it is all window dressing. It doesn't move things along to have Collins send out an automatic email response, but it makes it appear the city has done something.
Last fall when I attended a meeting called by Turner to discuss the public records policy of the city, my suggestion was to forget the email responses and artificial deadlines and institute a citywide policy to obey the North Carolina Public Records Law.
The city has chosen to go with fluff over substance. Now you get the nice email, but behind the email you have the same folks refusing to allow access to public records. Collins, by the way, is not one of those folks, but he doesn't run the department.
On Dec. 31, 2009, best-selling author Jerry Bledsoe, who writes for The Rhino Times, sent this email to Director of Public Affairs Pat Boswell. "Pat, I would like a copy of the names [sic] police officers who received payment through the city for off duty work in 2009 and the amount that each received. Thanks for your help and Happy New Year, Jerry."
It's a simple request for how much police officers were paid in addition to their salaries for working for the City of Greensboro at events at the Coliseum and other city sponsored events.
It is now Jan. 13 and we have not received the information (but we have now been promised the information, which is an improvement). What we had received up until Wood called Wednesday, Jan. 13, were excuses and attempts to obfuscate the law – the same type of response that we received during the administration of Johnson, before Turner came up with her policy on handling public records requests and automatic email responses.
Just like during the Johnson administration, we will get the information, but we will get it because the law is on our side and we know how to work the system.
The whole point of public records is that they belong to the people. The North Carolina Public Records Law states, "The public records and the public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people."
"The people" should not have to contact councilmembers, the mayor, the city attorney, the city manager and the like to obtain copies of records that, according to the law, belong to them. The director of public affairs should simply have a policy of turning over public records to the public when they are requested, but that is not the policy.
The policy continues to be that the records belong to the city staff and should only be given to the people if absolutely necessary, and after making people jump through as many hoops as possible.
In response to his simple request on Dec. 31 for public records regarding the compensation of police officers, Bledsoe received this response from Collins: "Jerry, The legal department entered the following ruling: Added by: Beverly Jones The records relative to off-duty work are not public record pursuant to NCGS Section 160A-168."
Bledsoe made a request for a more informative response to Collins and Collins forwarded this response from Chief Deputy General Counsel Becky Jo Peterson-Buie: "Good morning Jim. When it comes to City employee pay, if you read North Carolina General Statues section 160A-168(b), the following information is a matter of public record: 'current salary; and date and amount of the most recent increase or decrease in salary'. If you have any further questions feel free to contact me."
Peterson-Buie is, as one would expect, quoting the law correctly, but not all of the law. If she had continued reading a little further she would have read the following from 160A-168(b): "For the purposes of this subsection, the term 'salary' includes pay, benefits, incentives, bonuses, and deferred and all other forms of compensation paid by the employing entity."
It makes you wonder, did Peterson-Buie get bored and quit reading? Did she think that we didn't have a copy of the law and would take her word for it? Was she being intentionally deceptive? These are questions that Young needs to get answered. Peterson-Buie is paid $129,500, which is a lot of money to pay someone who cannot read the current public records law.
For whatever reason Peterson-Buie has made this situation much worse than it was. Young should be aware that some of the problems that got the former city manager in trouble had to do with following terrible advice from the former city attorney and attorneys in the City Legal Department, and Peterson-Buie was one of those attorneys.
What makes this stonewalling by the Public Affairs and City Legal departments even more absurd is that The Rhino Times has been down this path, fought this battle and negotiated an agreement, to get all employee information that is public record. So we probably already have the information, as every month The Rhino Times receives a report from the city providing the public information about all city employees, which includes name, age, hire date, job title, department, salary, change amount of salary, last salary change date, other compensation, benefits compensation and last personnel action date and type. So we have the information about what police officers were paid for off-duty work in the "other compensation" category. But at this point we don't know whether that other compensation was a bonus, an incentive, off-duty pay or some other special pay.
The law states that the record of those payments is a public record. So if a police officer received a bonus, the record of that bonus is a public record. We could assume that the amount that police officers received in other compensation was off-duty work, and would for the most part be right. But according to the law in North Carolina we don't have to guess why the city is paying its employees extra compensation; the public owns that record and anybody who asks for it should be allowed to see it and to copy it.
The City Legal Department has already agreed that the amount of additional compensation received by employees is a matter of public record and has provided that information but has refused to tell us what that additional compensation is for. Peterson-Buie said that the information about additional compensation was not a matter of public record, so she doesn't even know what her own department is doing.
We get that city employee report every month because of a quirk in the North Carolina Public Records Law that states that the salary and the last increase or decrease is a matter of public record, but what an employee was being paid before that increase is not. So an employee could receive a $50,000 raise one month and a $50 raise the next, and only that second raise would be a matter of public record. It is strange but that is the law. So if you want a history of what employees are being paid and what kind of raises they are receiving, you need to establish a database.
The reason that we requested the information about off-duty police work, for which the city pays time and a half, is because we had heard that Police Capt. Ray Reese and Police Lt. James Hinson were getting an inordinate amount of the lucrative time-and-a-half work at the Colisuem and other city sponsored events.
We cannot be certain that all of the payments listed in the category of "other compensation" are off-duty time-and-a-half work, but it seems unlikely that these officers are receiving thousands of dollars in incentive pay, bonuses or other compensation.
According to our research it is unusual for police captains to receive "other compensation." We checked three other police captains over a period of four months, chosen at random, in 2009 and one received a $500 payment in the "other compensation" category, which would appear to be a bonus, since it is a round figure. The two other captains didn't have a dime listed in the other compensation column.
Reese, who is paid a salary of $80,240, received in the "other compensation" category in those four months $2,532 in February, $1,403 in July, $3,154 in August, and $1,750 in November. Hinson, in addition to his salary of $73,088, received in the "other compensation" category $0 in February, $1,897 in July, $2,437 in August and $843 in November.
Looking at these "other compensation" figures, one that really jumps off the page is Police Officer Antuan Hinson (no relation to James Hinson), who is paid a salary of $45,188, and in July was paid $5,801 in "other compensation." If this other compensation is all time-and-a-half, off-duty work, then Antuan Hinson would have worked about 178 hours of overtime that month. But he could have received a bonus or incentive pay of some kind. All we know for sure is that in addition to his salary in August he received $5,800, which is about $2,000 more than he received in salary.
We can make some assumptions, but when the city releases the figures for off-duty work done by police officers we will be able to make some real comparisons. Maybe other captains are working a lot of overtime and we didn't find them because the lists we have include so much material and because they cannot be sorted or manipulated by computer.
For some of the larger events held at the Coliseum, a captain is recommended, but for events where that is not the case, the city could save money by using officers of lesser rank. Since some officers make less than half as much as captains, there could be real savings when a captain isn't necessary.
And if the police officers get to count this pay in their compensation for retirement purposes, and there is some question about what exactly gets counted toward retirement, then the taxpayers are going to being paying for that overtime work for decades. This overtime compensation may not count toward retirement, but whether it does or not, the police off-duty work policy appears to need some attention.