LAWRENCE: What does it take to disclose a salary?These are public records, and the salaries are paid with public dollars. We have a legal right to ask, and must be told.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Well, at least I wasn’t taken into custody by a sheriff.
Instead, I was stonewalled when I tried to learn how much Jason Merkley, the administrator of the Brookings Health System, is being paid.
The information was for a story on salaries for Mitchell city officials. The City Council passed a resolution setting those salaries at its Dec. 17 meeting, but the agenda item merely listed a range for those 25 salaried workers.
Finding out exactly how much they made in 2012, and what they would be paid in 2013, took a few days. But Mayor Ken Tracy, who has pledged transparency, provided me with the data, and Human Resources Director Billie Kelly was helpful as well.
It was both appreciated and what I expected. These are public records, and the salaries are paid with public dollars. We have a legal right to ask, and must be told.
South Dakota citizens are “fully empowered and authorized to examine such public record, and make memoranda and abstracts therefrom during the hours the respective offices are open for the ordinary transaction of business,” state law says.
However, I found out that some public employees don’t feel the law applies to them.
To provide a comparison and contrast in my story, I checked with a few South Dakota cities of similar size. I had just one question: How much are your three highest-paid staffers making?
It was very easy for Watertown.
Mayor Gary Williams answered his own phone and looked the numbers up for me. In less than five minutes, I had the information.
Huron also readily provided the numbers. A staffer was harried, as she prepared end-of-the-year reports, but she still helped me find the salaries and names.
Brookings, however, was a different story.
I spoke with City Manager Jeffrey Weldon, who quickly told me his salary. He also told me how to find the info on the other two top-salaried officials.
When I called Brookings Utilities, which is city-owned, the figure for its top staffer was immediately provided.
Things changed when I called Brookings Health System, also city-owned. I asked how much Merkley made and was shuttled from desk to desk.
I asked. And I asked. And I asked again. No one would tell me. No one would call back.
No one seemed willing to disclose this public information.
Finally, after six hours, we gave up and placed a line in the story, which ran Saturday, explaining that the salary of Merkley, a former top executive at Avera Queen of Peace in Mitchell, could not be retrieved.
But help was on the way. On Saturday, David Bordewyk, of Brookings, the executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, posted the story on his Facebook page and asked why the salary was not being released.
Soon, Brookings Mayor Tim Reed posted a comment and promised to look into it.
Well, what do you know! I received a phone call Monday morning and was told Merkley made $200,000 in 2012. That probably makes him one of, if not the, highest-paid municipal employee in South Dakota.
That’s especially interesting in a town with such socialist tendencies as “The People’s Republic of Brookings,” as it has often been called.
The city owns the hospital, two other health-care units, the only liquor store in the city, a phone company, a cable company, utilities and more. It’s my hometown, so I was well aware of that.
As a matter of fact, I was born in the Brookings Hospital. Not the current building, but an earlier version that is now part of the SDSU campus.
The woman who released Merkley’s salary information, Brookings Health System Human Resources Manager September Bessler, said it was my fault I didn’t get the information. I hadn’t asked the right person, she said.
Bessler said while I had asked two of her employees, I didn’t ask her. When I explained I had spoken with numerous employees, including the city manager, she said there was another reason I wasn’t told.
They wanted to know why I was asking, and what I intended to do with the information.
If she thought that was a justifiable reason to withhold the information, she was dead wrong. According to state law, no reason need be given. If you want to know how much a public employee is making, call or stop by an office, and they MUST tell you. Period. No ifs, ands or buts.
Then Bessler told me that wasn’t how they interpreted the law. In fact, she said, they would decide how the public records law is observed and obeyed.
This is an old, sad story in South Dakota. A decade ago, newspapers and other media outlets fanned out across the state and went to every county seat, asking for public information. It was a test to see how well public employees knew, and observed, the law.
In this area, two sheriffs questioned a Daily Republic reporter for having the audacity to ask such questions.
There’s not a lot of wriggle room in state law, even for a highly paid hospital CEO. Hopefully, this will be remembered the next time someone calls to ask such a question, whether they’re a journalist, someone settling a bar bet, or a citizen who merely wants to know how much a public employee is making.