Nfld. & Labrador

Telegram salary 'Sunshine List' serves no useful purpose, says MUN prof

Memorial University political science professor Amanda Bittner says a 'random Google doc' containing the names and salaries of hundreds of public servants in Newfoundland and Labrador serves no useful purpose.

Amanda Bittner disagrees that names should be attached; says government legislated disclosure needed

Amanda Bittner is a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John's.

Political scientist Amanda Bittner says a "random Google doc" containing the names and salaries of hundreds of public servants in Newfoundland and Labrador serves no useful purpose.

She believes journalists and others who want to hold governments accountable for the way they spend tax dollars would better serve the public by using an official "Sunshine List" created under legislation, following proper debate by politicians.

"We've seen in other jurisdictions that until governments take that job on specifically, purposefully and on their own, mistakes happen and it can lead to a lot of outrage," Bittner said during an interview with the St. John's Morning Show.

The Memorial University professor was commenting Friday on the creation of a so-called Sunshine List by The Telegram's James McLeod.

The list of public sector workers who earned more than $100,000 in 2015 was compiled through data McLeod obtained through access to information requests.

He published the list on his blog Thursday, and in Friday's print edition over two pages.

It includes the salaries, and in most cases names, of 3,916 core civil servants and employees of government agencies, boards and commissions, health authorities and the English school district.

Of that number, 995 work at Memorial University, but the list does not include Bittner, who's an associate professor on leave.

Memorial University employs 995 people who made more than $100,000 in 2015, according to data provided to The Telegram. (Laura Howells/CBC)

The list is a first-of-its kind for this province, and has sparked deep debate over the value of such disclosure, especially the release of names.

The province's teachers' association opted to withhold identities, and is preparing a legal challenge on the basis that it is an invasion of privacy.

Obscuring 'bigger problems'

Bittner says a patchwork release of such personal information is problematic, and she would prefer that the provincial government debate and pass legislation prior to the release of such a list.

She said this would ensure "accurate" information can be used for comparative analysis with other provinces and to highlight possible shortcomings such as pay inequality among genders.

She also disagrees that a person's name should be released publicly.

If the list highlights one thing, Bittner said, it's that some public sector workers in this province are lagging behind their counterparts in other provinces.

She includes herself in this category, and says The Telegram's list is obscuring what may be bigger problems.

"Is the problem that specific individuals have a high salary? Or is the problem that we have entire departments, perhaps, that don't need to be here, or need to change the way they are doing their program delivery?

"I think it's the job of opposition parties, citizens, pundits and journalists to do that kind of deep, analytical assessment that will actually help us to hold the government to account better and to have better policy at the end of the day."

Bittner challenged those who deduce that salaries are too high after reviewing the list. 

"I think the problem is that a lot of salaries are too low," she said.

With files from the St. John's Morning Show