Where is your town hiding its salary report?
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Of all the information available on a municipality's website, salary details for most department heads should be one of the easiest things to find.
After all, a state law dictates that current compensation records for employees making more than $75,000 a year "must" be posted online -- or at least notice of where to find the report at city hall must be given.
"To my knowledge, it's the only state law that deals with what has to be on a (municipality's) website," said Donald Anderson, an attorney specializing in local Illinois government law at the law firm Ancel Glink.
Yet, more than a year and a half after that law was passed, finding those reports remains easier said than done.
It takes a scavenger hunt to find the report on most municipal websites -- if it exists at all. Officials in Elburn and Lakemoor were unaware of the law and promised to put a report together after being asked for one.
An analysis of 74 suburbs found none kept a link to the report on the municipality's home page, even though it's the only state-mandated content. Sometimes the report was as many as six clicks away from the home page. In some cases, guessing at search terms like "compensation" yielded success. On Gurnee's website, the only way to find the report is to search for the law's public act number, "PA 97-0609."
So why are the reports so hard to find? Local officials blamed state lawmakers.
"There was an absence of guidance in that regard from the legislature," said Ray Keller, Gilberts village administrator. "The overall intent is to post it online, but how (the legislature) wound up writing it can be a bit confusing."
Thirteen municipalities simply chose not to maintain the report online at all.
Itasca Village Manager Evan Teich said the report is available only at village hall or by request to "control the information." He said opponents of Itasca's recently failed home-rule bid used the compensation report's totals to complain about municipal employees' pay.
"We want to explain to people what they're looking at," Teich said.
The law affects all government agencies participating in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. That also includes library, park and school districts as well as townships.
Because the law merely requires that IMRF employers post the "total compensation package for each employee having a total compensation package that exceeds $75,000 per year" within six days after a budget is approved, it's left up to municipal officials as to how and where that information is posted.
"When you get any kind of compliance request and they don't give you the parameters, you're almost setting yourself up for problems because of the various interpretations," said Fox Lake Village Administrator Nancy Schuerr.
No one gets punished if a town fails to comply. West Chicago's current budget has been approved since late 2012, yet there is neither a compensation report nor a notice of where the report can be found on the city's website.
"There were a number of other high-priority items that came up and had greater impact to our residents," said West Chicago City Manager Michael Guttman. "We knew we'd be able to get to it after June 30, and that's what we're doing.
"It was not neglected, it was worked on and these other high-profile priorities took precedence."
When available, the reports are most often found on web pages for the municipality's finance department or human resources division, but they also can be found at Web pages dedicated to the Freedom of Information Act, municipal administration or resident services, among others. A searchable list of many of these reports accompanies the online version of this story.
The lack of uniformity extends to the information included, as well. Some towns list only the position title and a total dollar amount, while other towns list names, hire dates, base salaries, benefit costs, additional allowances for things like clothing, cars and housing as well as vacation and sick day accrual. Some reports list all municipal employees, while officials elsewhere have painstakingly gone through financial documents to weed out employees who make less than the $75,000 threshold required to post the information.
"They're making more work for themselves, and why are we cutting it off at $75,000 in the first place?" said state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Wheaton Republican who championed a bill during the last legislative session that would have required towns and other governments to keep more documents on their websites.
Ives' bill failed to make it out of committee. It would have created a "transparency portal" on government websites where 16 specific items would have to be posted. Those items included contact information for all elected officials, budgets, ordinances, audits, contracts with lobbying firms, debt disclosure reports, a revenue and expenditure database and a more detailed employee compensation report. The bill was drafted by the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that analyzes and tracks government finances. Because the current report is based on budgeted estimates, institute officials contend municipal compensation reports in their current form are essentially useless.
"The problem with the compensation report now is that it's a projection, and a projection can be completely inaccurate," said Brian Costin, the institute's director of government reform.
Despite having bipartisan support, Ives' bill was opposed by lobbying groups that expressed concerns about the demands it would place on government workers.
When she tried to soften the bill, she met with opposition from civil liberty advocacy groups that complained the bill would hinder access to information.
Costin said the bill would have freed up staff time and eased access to information.
"There was an amendment that would have allowed government bodies to direct someone to the information online instead of responding to a Freedom of Information Act request," he said. "A lot of stuff in this bill are things you only have to post once a year. It's one of the cheapest and biggest bangs for the buck you're going to get."
Ives plans to reintroduce the bill again next year.
"In my opinion, the game has been in place for too long a time preventing taxpayers from finding out what the government costs," Ives said.
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