Miami-Dade commissioner wants to remove online posting of county employees’ salaries

Someday, almost every action taken by Miami-Dade County government will automatically be uploaded to the county’s website, available for the public to peruse.

That’s the vision, anyway, of some county leaders — including the mayor, at least one commissioner and Miami-Dade’s information technology department — who have been actively pushing to post more information online, and to make the data easier to find.

But the effort has already hit a bump: The latest high-profile database, posted in August, features the names, titles and salaries of the county’s nearly 26,000 employees. And some workers are less than happy about it.

The county commission will vote Tuesday on a proposal by Commissioner Barbara Jordan that would force the administration to take down the database and prohibit it from putting the information online again. It would still be available upon request.

“Information should be provided publicly, regarding salaries or anything else that is done in Miami-Dade County,” Jordan said. “But I think we also have to be concerned with balancing that with the safety and security of our employees.”

She will run into ardent opposition from Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose administration posted the database on an open-government page that also lists the county’s check register and other financial documents.

“It’s a public record; I don’t see what the problem is,” he said of the salaries, adding that residents are entitled to the information. “They can see where their money is going.”

He added: “I think they have a right to it, and they should be able to obtain it in an easy way. Then the public can come to their own conclusions about it. ... We don’t have anything to hide.”

Nationally, governments are posting more records online as technology continues to improve, said Kevin Curry, director of Code for America, a nonprofit that recruits self-described “geeks” to work with municipalities to find better ways to deliver information online. The debate has focused on which records to provide, and how.

For example, the federal government, which has a portal called Data.gov, has required agencies to create their own open-government pages to post data sets, budgets and reports, all in one place.

“We went from having a very few number — like in the tens or maybe hundreds — of public data sets published on Data.gov to millions,” Curry said. “Now there’s more of a habit around it.”

Some efforts have been rocky. The Sunburst website of Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, which publishes his staff’s emails, has been criticized by some open-government advocates as disappointing because Scott’s aides don’t use email as a primary form of communication.

In many cases — especially in Florida, which has some of the most liberal public-records laws in the country — it’s just a matter of making available data user-friendly and understandable, added Curry, who runs a Code for America program that organizes tech-savvy volunteers to engage in their communities.

“Open data means it’s publicly accessible,” he said. “It’s not, ‘Here are the salaries in a PDF document,’ and you can’t do anything with it, can’t make interesting charts and graphs.”

Miami-Dade has long posted millions of records online, though information technology administrators readily admit that finding them is not always intuitive. Still, once frequent users become familiar with the website, they can do extensive research and even create maps showing specific information without ever setting foot in County Hall.

Take the county’s environmental resources management division, which began posting records online about eight years ago. Today, anyone with an Internet connection can search the department’s database to browse some 1.6 million records ranging from permit applications to violation notices — some from as far back as the early 1990s, when documents were stored on microfilm.

Instead of having eight employees staffing a counter to receive customers, the department now has two. Others have been moved to a production room lined with computers and scanners, with rows of boxes sitting in the middle. Every day, the department collects paper records it produces to “digitize’’ them. Older documents get scanned as time allows.

“Our file review area used to be a cramped little area,” said Christopher Caporale, the division’s records management section manager. “You had one record, and it was only available to one person in one spot at a time.”

But the database is limited to environmental records. A user can’t search under a specific address, for example, to find records created by other departments, such as building, zoning or the property appraiser.

As part of a two-year proposal to expand public records available online, the county plans to move data housed in different divisions to a central location, which would ultimately allow users to search across departments. The plan also envisions automatically publishing some records online that do not need to undergo prior staff review.

For more sensitive data, the administration would create a public information committee that would decide, with input from the county attorney’s office, whether the records should be posted.

But that is still some time away. The county has yet to identify funding for the bulk of the proposal, which could cost nearly half a million dollars.

Beginning in January, the county will expand a pilot program to post more records online, starting with the accounts payable division, said Mary Fuentes, the information technology department’s director of enterprise solutions. In addition to viewing Miami-Dade’s check register, users will also be able to see invoices related to the checks.

For now, the administration has redesigned the open-government website, MiamiDade.gov/transparency, and posted the salaries database — to Commissioner Jordan’s chagrin.

Jordan said she favors putting more budgetary and procurement information online. But she is concerned that ill-intentioned outsiders could use salary information to target employees, finding out more about them by cross-referencing their names in other public databases, such as in property records. No addresses or Social Security numbers appear on the salaries database.

Salary information is also “misleading,” Jordan said, because it doesn’t include an employee’s qualifications or years of service. Some employees have found out their colleagues’ salaries online and realized they do not get paid the same for a comparable job title — because one employee may have different duties or experience, Jordan said.

“That, to me, becomes very subjective,” she said. “I just don’t feel we need to be that loosey-goosey about putting the info online that could subject our employees to unsavory characters.”

Jordan noted that commissioners did not explicitly approve posting the database online, though they do not typically OK what the administration posts on the website. In a resolution earlier this year, the board agreed with Commissioner Javier Souto’s proposal to publish employee salaries once a year in booklets that would be available at all of the county’s regional libraries.

But the board also signed off on another measure this year, sponsored by Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, asking the administration for the plan to expand public records available online.

Barreiro, who also took the lead on legislation to publish the county’s check register, said that, like the mayor, he opposes removing the salaries database from the website.

“My position is that, eventually, everything should be online as a public record,” he said. “People can see how the government’s running, and what we’re working on. They’ll be confident in their government, to see things there all the time.”

Perhaps the answer could be adding more information, such as qualifications or years of experience to the salaries database, Gimenez said, echoing a suggestion made at a committee meeting earlier this month by Commissioner Lynda Bell. Jordan argued that was not the answer, because employees could still be targeted by outsiders.

Gimenez disagreed.

“You are paying for this information already through your taxes. You own us,” he said, as if speaking to the public. “I just don’t get this.”