The News Tribune

This public records headline will grab your attention

I’ve been working on a public records story for the past few weeks and have been struggling with the headline. Do I include the words “public records”? Will that bore people? How about “access” or “transparency”? While these topics are fascinating to me, I know not everyone feels the same.

That’s why I was impressed when I came across this headline from The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. That simple black box says it all.

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Sunshine Week: The News Tribune

Editor’s note: In celebration of Sunshine Week, I’ve asked journalists from around the country to tell me how they use public records in their reporting. 

KATE MARTIN, Tacoma City Hall reporter at The News Tribune

STORY: City of Tacoma gets around pay freeze with extra benefits

I have not been in Tacoma long, so to familiarize myself with city policies I was reading the municipal code. The municipal code includes a section on how the city’s utilities director and city manager should report extra compensation to the City Council every year.

I made a records request for all “Additional compensation/benefits report” from 2008-2013. Additional compensation can mean bonus pay, deferred compensation, severance pay, moving and travel expenses, pension pay and temporary housing. It also includes any additional vacation days granted in a year. Additional compensation is supposed to be used to retain employees who have received job offers elsewhere, or to bring new employees to the city (hence the housing and moving expenses).

Coincidentally, the City Council was also considering a pay raise for non-union employees (generally managers). Many of those employees had not seen a raise in five years. What the reports showed is that some non-union employees were being awarded bonuses, vacation pay and other benefits to compensate for the lack of a raise in five years (especially from the utilities department).

When requesting salary records, additional compensation is another area reporters should ask about. I use public records all the time. Last year I probably filed 60 or so requests, ranging in complexity from a simple document to electronic databases.

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Thanks to Kate Martin for sharing her story. To get updates on what journalists I’m featuring during Sunshine Week, follow me on Twitter @RecordsGeek. If you are a journalist and would like your public records story featured on this blog, email kahinchcliffe@gmail.com.

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