An intriguing debate is simmering in news-industry circles as to whether it’s a legitimate journalistic function to publicly distribute a database of government employee salaries, or just an invitation to voyeurism. Recently, one Texas newspaper apologetically pulled down its searchable web page of state workers’ salaries after an outcry from angry readers, while other news organizations continue to insist that the data is of public importance.
There is understandable empathy for the $8.50-an-hour groundskeeper whose salary is of negligible news value, except to his nosy neighbors. But there’s no sympathy for the well-compensated campus mucky-muck who — having been amply compensated for actual work — glides to a cushy retirement as a “consultant” or “adviser” to the same agency he just left.
Using public records obtained from the University System of Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution disclosed that a number of top Georgia college officials, including the former chancellor, stayed on the payroll after officially leaving office in roles of uncertain public benefit. Indeed, until recently it was a matter of state policy — though not widely known to the public — that the standard compensation package for a college president included two years of “severance,” the first year at 90 percent pay and the second at 60 percent, the AJC reported.
(An interesting follow-up to this type of story would be to ask for a record of the written work product produced by the former exec in his “advisory” role, a calendar showing the meetings he attended, or any other tangible evidence that the paycheck was earned.)
With Georgia college presidents pulling down as much as $644,000 a year, those percentages can add up. And it is a legitimate question why a $600,000 salary, a free house, an expense account, and the nicest box in the stadium is not enough incentive by itself to lure a perfectly fine candidate.
There are several ways to get at this information, but one direct approach is to use a public-records request for the employment contracts of the presidents, provosts and chancellors. Since these golden parachutes can be a matter of policy rather than contract, it’s also worthwhile to ask that question, or request copies of any regulations or policies that address post-termination pay and benefits. And since supplemental pay can sometimes come from a university foundation rather than the state treasury, make sure to look there as well.