The Texas Public Information Act makes it very clear that the salaries of public employees are “public information and not excepted from disclosure” [Texas Local Gov’t Code §552.022(a)] under the act. Specifically, in the section defining categories of information that are public, included are “the name, sex, ethnicity, salary, title, and dates of employment of each employee and officer of a government body”. [Texas Local Gov’t Code §552.022(a)(2)]
A city employee is, of course, an employee of “a municipal governing body in the state,” and is thus subject to the Public Information Act [Texas Local Gov’t Code §552.003(A)(iii)]
The only exception to the categories of public information in §552.022(a) is for records that are “expressly confidential under other law.” No privacy laws specifically make public employee salaries confidential. In fact, the confidentiality exception in 552.022(a) is very narrow; in one hotly-debated example, the Texas Supreme Court construed the confidentiality exception to include reports compiled for ongoing litigation, which are privileged under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure [see In re City of Georgetown, 53 S.W.3d 328 (2001)].
In that case, current Attorney General Greg Abbott was serving as one of the court’s justices, and he made a telling statement in his dissenting opinion. He disagreed that 552.022(a) should be extended even this far, instead suggesting that the items in this section (which includes public employee salaries) were intended “to create a set of ‘super public’ categories of information to which” other exceptions should not apply. [53 S.W.3d at 341]
The reasoning behind this is obvious. As taxpayers, we fund our government’s activities. It is our business how much our government spends our tax dollars, including how it pays its employees. Nearly every state makes public employee salaries open to inspection, either in the state’s freedom of information laws or through court decisions regarding the law (as was the case in California in 2007, when the state’s supreme court interpreted the Public Records Act to include employee salaries; see International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21, AFL-CIO v. Superior Court of Alameda County).
On occasion, government employees bristle at this level of openness, particularly when lists of employees’ names and salaries are posted on the Web. In Maine, for example, a bill was introduced in the legislature in April that would make employee salaries confidential, largely in response to a database posted by MaineOpenGov.org. That bill never reached a vote; it was killed unanimously by the legislature’s judiciary committee shortly after the bill was introduced.
If a government body in Texas is denying access to public employee salaries, it must provide a specific confidentiality provision recognized under Texas law that would serve as an exception to the general rule that this information is open under the Texas Public Information Act. If denied on confidentiality grounds, requesters should be sure to ask for the specific code, chapter and section of state law that the government body is relying on as an exception to 552.022(a); a bare assertion of “personal privacy” should not deter this request for information that is specifically deemed open to inspection under Texas law.