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Friday, September 14, 2012

On my favorite moment of journalism

My favorite moment in journalism came in 2010 while I was working on a three-week investigative series on public salaries. I was trying to compare our police chief's salary with other police chief salaries around the state. I called around to a few cities to get their salaries.
I called the Rexburg city manager out of the blue. I was surprised when he answered the phone. I identified myself and told him what I was working on and then asked him what the Rexburg police chief’s salary was.
“Who are you with again?” he asked suspiciously.
I told him.
“And what are you working on again?”
Even though I knew full well that when you ask a public official for a piece of public information, it is technically against the law to ask why it’s being asked for, I played along and repeated what I was doing.
The Rexburg city manager explained to me that he didn’t want that information to be out there, because when people just read a number, they tend to overreact and get upset.
“What is the salary of the Rexburg police chief?” I asked this time in a less patient voice.
“Well, our police chief is going to be retiring and we’re going to be hiring a new chief soon, so I don’t know what that salary is going to be,” he said.
“What is the salary of the current Rexburg police chief?” I asked more specifically.
“Well, I can tell you what the range is that we’re going to be advertising it for.”
“OK, what’s the range?”
“$60,000 to $96,216.”
“Um, that’s a pretty big range. Can you be more specific about what the current salary is?”
“All I can tell you is that the top of the range is $96,216,” he said, an apparent indication that that’s what the current salary is without directly saying so.
“So is that the current police chief’s salary?” I asked.
“That’s all I’m going to say,” he said.
“OK, just so I’m clear. You will not tell me what the current police chief’s salary is.”
“That’s correct.”
“OK, thank you for your time.”
I hung up the phone agitated but not angry, not yet. I decided to just let it go and use the range he provided to me. But as I thought about it, it irritated me more and more that a public official would point blank refuse to disclose public information. I decided to make a point.
I filled in the blanks of one of my pre-written Freedom of Information Act/Public Record law letters that I routinely used when requesting public records.
I addressed this letter to the Rexburg city attorney, got his email from the city’s website and sent him the letter with an email message saying that I had just spoken with the city manager, who refused to give me the information I was requesting and that perhaps this letter would help the release of public information.
I sent it off and went back to my research on public library director salaries, expecting the Rexburg city attorney to take his sweet time in responding to my request.
About 15 minutes later, my phone rang, with the caller ID saying “City of Rexburg.” I expected it to be the city attorney.
“Kuna Melba News, this is Scott,” I answered cheerily.
“Ninety-six thousand, two-hundred sixteen.” It was my old friend, the city manager.
“That’s the salary of the current Rexburg police chief?”
“Well, thank you for the information, I appreciate it.”
We will win. We will win. We will win.

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