Last week, British Columbia’s elected councillors and mayors gathered together and voted en masse to tell the province that, actually, the public knows too much about how much they are paying their local city’s employees.
Every September, local politicians gather at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities to hobnob, network, and lobby one another (and to be lobbied by those companies and organizations paying to get a foot in the door).
They also vote on a laundry list of resolutions, which typically involve deciding what they, as a group, are going to seek from the provincial or federal governments.
This year, the resolution booklet saw New Westminster and Coquitlam suggest that the province allow local governments to reduce the amount of available information about public salaries.
Here’s the background: Each year, public bodies like school districts, municipalities and health authorities release what is called a “Statement of Financial Information.” That statement lists the names and salaries of all employees who make over $75,000.
Reporters regularly use that list to write stories on a city’s highest earners: often the city manager, and the heads of major departments. These folks always make more than the mayor and councillors.
The New Westminster resolution suggested that municipalities be allowed to disclose just the positions – and not the names – linked to each salary.
The Coquitlam resolution, meanwhile, said the $75,000 limit should be raised every five years in accordance with inflation. Both passed. And both do sound reasonable.
The crafters of the name issue, for example, suggested that publicly available salary information could be used to harass staff, particularly on social media. And inflation does exist. I get why it might make sense to raise the $75,000 limit in accordance with it.
But there are a couple big problems. First: the reason the public has this information is because it provides a way to keep our government accountable. Those names aren’t just names. They provide insight into how our governments make decisions and who benefits.
In the past couple years, many outlets, including The News, have used those lists – and those names – to show that men continue to hold most of the highest-paying jobs in our municipal governments. If those names go away, so too do those important stories on gender equity.
(P.S.: My union [Unifor] publishes online the contract that sets pay scales for reporters’ salaries at The News and other papers. There is also something to be said for the societal benefits that would come if we were all less squeamish about revealing our pay. Silence over salaries gives power to employers, not employees.)
On the inflation issue, I would have no qualms, except for the glaring fact that most of the politicians at UBCM continually refuse to link their own pay to inflation.
The City of Abbotsford and Fraser Valley Regional District are actually outliers in this, having adopted a scheme that links the pay of politicians directly to their residents’ pay.
Other municipal politicians don’t seem to think the scheme is such a good idea, though. This year, they endorsed guidelines that suggest politicians should use other politicians’ salaries to set their own wages.
This sounds reasonable, but creates an escalator effect, whereby municipalities curate lists that show their politicians underpaid in comparison to those in other places. It’s a game of leapfrog, with the public paying for politicians to stay off the bottom of the pay list.
Both resolutions probably sound reasonable to someone voting on dozens of proposals over hours. But they are the creeping edge of a system biased (sometimes for understandable reasons, sometimes for cravenness) toward keeping as much information as possible from the public.
Most politicians will tell you they favour openness and accountability. They probably do, in their minds.
But in these and other cases, they are inclined to find excuses here, and reasons there, why actually all that information should stay hidden from the public’s view.
They love accountability and openness until it’s inconvenient. And it’s not their fault that it just always seems inconvenient.