October 28, 2011
JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS — Visitors to the Ohio treasurer’s new search engine for public worker salaries have complained the site is riddled with errors and omissions, leading the office to repair existing data and change the way it presents wage information.
Some constituents accuse Republican Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel, in records obtained by The Associated Press, of using the search tool to fuel antipathy toward government workers ahead of a Nov. 8 vote on Ohio’s divisive new collective bargaining law.
“By doing it this way, in such close proximity to the campaign to repeal (the law), it seems as though you are trying to pit the general public against those that serve them, thereby serving the agenda of the Republican party, and not the agenda of the public or yourself,” said a Sept. 1 email from Mike Kubec, who said he was an advocate of transparency but wanted the site to be taken down.
Mandel spokesman Seth Unger said Mandel began the $12,000 project before the collective bargaining law was passed.
“We really started with a goal of allowing taxpayers to see how their money is being spent, and the fact that we’ve gotten over 1.3 million hits in that first month has shown that the public is overwhelmingly in favor of transparency and interested in this data,” Unger said.
Feedback on Mandel’s “Treasurer’s Transparency Project” includes praise for the improved access — “Very powerful reporting. Keep up the good work” — as well as about 50 complaints among the more than 100 messages received by email, regular mail and telephone.
Records reflect anger over privacy, politics, and a host of individual inaccuracies — a retiree listed as a current worker, a misstated job title, and inflated salary figures by including overtime, summer pay for teachers or sick time payouts. One complainant said the site listed his daughter’s stipend for graduate school as if it were state worker pay.
School district treasurers and a university professors’ union were among those asking that their information be pulled, or the site shut down, due to broader inaccuracies.
“I do understand the need to make this information public, however, I would think that you would not want to cause harm to public employers by disseminating incorrect information,” wrote Marsha Clark, treasurer of East Holmes Local School District in Berlin. She said listings for her district are outdated and overstate salaries by more than $1.6 million.
Jeff Karem, president of the Cleveland State University chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said Mandel’s site overstates Karem’s salary by $10,000 and one of his colleagues’ by $20,000 — giving “reason to believe that other public workers’ salaries are misrepresented.”
Unger said the site is no longer streaming salary data compiled by the policy think tank Buckeye Institute, in part because using outside data made it impossible for the state to fix errors that were discovered. He said the office has gathered source data directly from two government agencies — the Ohio Departments of Education and Administrative Services, a move that was always planned.
However, he acknowledges annual salary estimates driven by government data may not match workers’ actual pay to the penny. A formula for calculating state workers’ annual salaries on the site averages their year-to-date paychecks and extrapolates the monthly average over the 26 state pay periods in a year. One state worker wrote to say that formula failed to capture a big raise she had received, thus understating her pay.
Unger said the problem should be resolved once a full year of data is posted.
Buckeye Institute President Matt Mayer said the conservative think tank doesn’t extrapolate payroll data. It waits for employees’ W-2s to be made public and posts actual pay.
Several complaints criticize Mandel for moving quickly to post public salary data yet missing a deadline for the filing of his financial disclosure report in the U.S. Senate race.
“I am deeply disturbed that he is eager to put the salaries of hundreds of thousands of hard-working public employees in the public eye while shielding his own finances,” said an email from John Avouris.
Unger said the transparency project is ambitious and unique among states. Mandel hopes it can be a national model once glitches are addressed.
He said posting the information was “a very important first step — and we’ve always known that it was going to be an ongoing process to get the information refined or as complete and accurate as we possibly can.”
Cheri Miller was among those who wrote Mandel in support of the search tool. “The website about the public employee salaries is the best thing! Don’t take it off, because you know there are going to be complaints. It is about time constituents learned where their taxes go.”