Wow! That sounds serious. The story implies that any City with DNP's in the Mercury News database must be hiding something. After all, the lawyer for the Newspaper, and famous Brown Act Attorney Karl Olson, both said Public Agencies are REQUIRED to provide this information according to California State Law. Well, yes and no.
I met with Eva Phelps, Director of Finance, Candace Daniels, Accounting Manager, and Cheryl Wade, Director of Public Information for San Ramon to get the facts on what the newspaper requested and what they provided and why.
Phelps explained that the City has been using an accounting software from SunGard since 1999. This software is used to provide annual Salary and W2 information to the State in the format required by the State.
The newspaper sent a request for the information on January 6, 2011, which was six days after the end of 2010. The Accounting Department had not closed out the year, which requires a reconciliation or balancing of all records prior to preparing the W2 forms for employees by that date, and it was necessary to do that before providing any information to the paper. After the year was closed, an employee spent three weeks putting together the data requested by the newspaper.
The City provided the data in the same format they provided it to the State Controller for 2010. This is also posted on the City's website in PDF format. However, the 2010 data requested by the CC Times included eight additional fields that were not in the 2009 data that the City provided last year.
In order to add this data to the newspaper's requested format, the City would either have to pay for custom programming to extract the data, or have an employee rekey in all of the data into an Excel Spreadsheet in the format requested by the paper.
In 2009 there was one error in 582 records submitted to the paper, which made it appear as if a Lifeguard received a gross salary of $137,452.52. In fact several comments were posted in the blogs regarding this exorbitant salary. The Lifeguard actually received $13,745.52. You can see that 52 was entered twice, before and after the decimal point. That was a keying error.
The City caught the error after the data had been sent to the paper and asked them to correct it. They did not. Instead they said the City was being "inconsistent."
To ensure that no errors would be made by manually rekeying the 577 records requested by the newspaper for 2010, the City advised the newspaper of an estimated fee for the City's financial accounting software provider to extract the data.
Accounting Manager, Candace Daniels, estimated the cost for custom programming to extract the data from the SunGard system would be $80 an hour or $2000, but the Times refused to pay any costs for getting the data in their requested format.
"Some entities want money for data because they want to be reimbursed for the cost of producing it. The Alameda Health Care District demanded $5,000 to detail the medical insurance costs of its employees. Eleven school districts in San Joaquin County demanded $366 each to provide data. The city of Santa Rosa asked for $965; Half Moon Bay wanted $503 and Benicia sought $5,000 for the information.
So who paid? Who covered the cost of these agencies for providing free information to a commercial enterprise for its profit at the public's expense? Thomas Peele boasted in his article, "Bay Area News Group did not pay for any of the information."
Yet according to City Attorney, Sheryl Schaffner, Government Code section 6253.9 (b), says "the requester shall bear the cost of producing a copy of the record, including the cost to construct a record, and the cost of programming and computer services necessary to produce a copy of the record when . . . . The request would require data compilation, extraction, or programming to produce the record."
Schaffner was also concerned that some of the medical payments made by the city might reveal information which could be in violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The City offers a Private Benefit Health Plan, which makes it a Covered Entity under HIPAA.
HIPAA establishes regulations for disclosure of Protected Health Information (PHI), which includes payment for health care that can be linked to an individual. So if the medical costs paid by the City to one employee are unusually high, that could indicate the employee or a family member is being treated for a medical condition, even if the exact condition isn't revealed.
San Ramon is hardly alone in not conforming to the Times' request for data from public agencies. "Other government entities have released only partial data, including Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, San Ramon, Walnut Creek, Fairfield and Palo Alto."
I emailed Times reporter Thomas Peele and Database editor, Daniel Willis about the absence of data on another agency. Willis answered my email, "We've sent out 510 requests so far, a list of who didn't answer wouldn't fit on the page. However we have a Request Status database that lets you track our progress."
On April 25 I emailed Willis to inform him that "I plan to write a commentary about this on Thursday for the San Ramon Express. I shall include your response if you choose to send one." I also left phone messages for Willis and Peele about my blog. So far I have not received a reply.