Thursday, July 02, 2009 | The U-T’s analysis of the City’s salary and wage expenses is flawed and lacks context.

As the former City Comptroller I oversaw the processing of all claims against the City Treasury in addition to the City’s payroll function for over 3 years. Beyond daily operational and processing responsibilities, the Comptroller’s office serves to function as a centralized repository for financial information about the City. It is in this capacity that I had had the pleasure of working with many talented local reporters. While I didn’t always agree with the conclusions brought forward in their analysis, I found that for the most part, the reporters were diligent in fact checking their analysis and generally fair in the presentation of the facts and context. This series by the Union Tribune is clearly an exception.

I stand behind the openness and transparency of the operations of the Comptroller’s office. I also think most local reporters would substantiate the Comptroller’s Office’s commitment to providing a service that is unparalleled by other public agencies. Often they don’t charge for access to records that they should, even when they felt it was at the expense of achieving the taxpayer’s greater objectives. They do this because they value the role of the press in democratic and open government.

It was because of this commitment that I was dismayed when I read the tilted analysis presented without context. I was even more appalled by the sniveling screed subtly woven into the articles about a lack of, or delayed access to information and how hard the reporters had to work to achieve an eventually bogus result.

First, while the City wants to be accountable to the public, it isn’t the City’s job to make money for the Union Tribune. The data being requested required custom reports to be developed and run against the City’s payroll database. That is the reason why the services were offered at a charge. The public records law is written so as to level the playing field for journalists and the public, not to create a free data analysis consulting operation for journalists.

The City didn’t want to devote approximately 40 hours of taxpayer funded programming time to your article when they were in the middle of a major system conversion. They asked you to pay for it. Cry me a river. You have to be kidding me, you didn’t see it relevant to disclose the truth behind what you asked; but, you still saw it relevant to disclose the $1,900 payment request. Couching the narrative by saying the system is complex is not integrity, I don’t know what it is, but integrity it is not. You were given a quote to perform services that were non-essential to the operation of the city.

Second, about the context of the numbers presented, the data you present is inaccurate in the sense that it overstates individuals compensation on an almost routine basis. Personally, my salary for the fiscal year 2008 is overstated in your database by almost 7 percent. I fact checked the Union Tribune with officials at the City, your reporters didn’t understand the data they were given and they did not take the time to understand what the staff of the Comptroller’s office was telling them. On a big story, I have had journalist call me 20 times confirming the same facts over and over again. I know what good investigative reporters do and I am told by numerous people that didn’t happen here. The irony is that a more seasoned reporter on the U-T City Beat had it right in a blog post dated December 30, 2008[1] and the U-T didn’t even fact check against its own previous posts and articles.

To further my point, in the case of a recent article about the salary of a manager in the Comptroller’s office, you didn’t add any significant (and obvious) context beyond recent turnover in the office. The fact that the office was recently accused by fraud by the SEC, and thus had a significant management changeover wasn’t discussed in any meaningful way. Neither was the fact that the office recently performed at a very high level of output and that this employee played a key role in that process. The fact that the employee experienced a significant increase in responsibility and span of control for being a high performer is also absent from your article. Finally, the fact that his pay was artificially low in the base year of the analysis due to the fact that he was in an “out of class” assignment is also absent. This is all relevant in the context of a watchdog report about how a persons compensation is set; especially one that the reporters spent “months” compiling. The point about out of class assignments are especially relevant if you are going to print something about the percentage increase the employee in question received. All of this illustrates that the Union Tribune’s analysis is shallow and flawed.

Perhaps this was due to the predetermined bias of a few overly eager, sometimes frustrated, and very green data analysts looking to make their mark in an organization in turmoil. Know this: if your staff can’t take the time or make the effort to provide a factually correct and nuanced understanding to the reader, it encourages the City to apply the narrowest possible legal interpretation of the law around public records access and constantly play defense. Ultimately, this is to the disadvantage of the rest of the local journalism community and the public at large. As such, I hope they stand up and take notice of this butchering of the facts.

If you can’t pin your numbers, you shouldn’t print them. Qualifying footnotes don’t make up for shoddy analysis. It doesn’t work that way when the shoe is on the other foot. That is what journalistic integrity is supposed to be about. In my opinion, this marks a new professional low – at least locally. It is just too bad that it had to take place at the expense of thousands of dedicated and hard working city employees. If the Union Tribune was truly acting in the best interests of the City’s residents it would take down the database and would hire a qualified consultant to assist them the next time they want to analyze a complex topic like the City’s payroll.

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