G-T loses appeal of OSU pay records denial

2014-01-17T07:30:00Z 2014-03-03T16:06:55Z G-T loses appeal of OSU pay records denialBy Bennett Hall, Corvallis Gazette-Times Corvallis Gazette Times

The Gazette-Times suffered a setback this week in its efforts to obtain a complete set of payroll records from Oregon State University along with explanatory information about OSU’s compensation database.

Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson on Wednesday ruled against an appeal filed Jan. 8 by the G-T in conjunction with OSU student journalist Megan Campbell and her former adviser, Kate Willson.

The initial request sought payroll information on all university employees — including student workers — from 2008 to 2013. It asked for the records to be provided in electronic form along with data dictionaries and record layouts so the information could be interpreted clearly and accurately.

OSU officials had offered to provide compensation data for all employees except student workers, arguing those records must be kept secret under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA.

The university also balked at providing the data dictionaries and record layouts, contending that information is proprietary data belonging to Ellucian, the software company that created the Banner database OSU uses, and that releasing it would be a breach of contract and a violation of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. OSU also argued that data dictionaries and record layouts are exempt from disclosure under provisions of the Oregon Public Records Law intended to protect computer programs and trade secrets.

For the most part, the district attorney sided with OSU.

In a two-page letter explaining his decision, Haroldson called the dispute over access to data dictionaries and record layouts “a highly technical argument” but said he found OSU’s position more persuasive and ruled in favor of the university based on the computer program exemption. However, he added, “I do not reach OSU’s contention that the information is a trade secret.”

Haroldson did agree to order OSU to waive its proposed fee of $147 for providing the nonstudent compensation data, saying it met the public interest test in state law.

But he made no ruling on whether the university was justified in withholding student pay records, saying the appeal did not explicitly ask him to order OSU to release that data.

Steve Clark, OSU’s vice president for university relations and marketing, reiterated the university’s offer to supply data on nonstudent employees and said it would not try to charge for them.

“We’ll comply with the district attorney’s ruling and waive the fees,” Clark said.

The Gazette-Times and its fellow petitioners are weighing their options, including whether to appeal Haroldson’s decision to the Benton County Circuit Court or to file an amended records request with OSU.

Original request filed in October

Willson filed the original request in October, when she was employed as a student media adviser at OSU, to gather data for a workshop on computer-assisted reporting. The Gazette-Times and Campbell, the managing editor of the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Barometer, later signed onto the request to glean information for news stories.

University officials told Willson that she couldn’t request the records as an OSU employee because, as an agent of a public body, she does not meet the definition of a natural person in the Oregon Public Records Law, although she could request the information as a private citizen. She also was reprimanded for filing the request jointly with a student journalist on the grounds that students should do their own work.

The Gazette-Times published an article about the dispute on Dec. 29. Willson has since submitted her resignation to OSU and is now pursuing the public records appeal as a freelance journalist. She starts a new job with Portland’s Willamette Week newspaper in February.

Willson, who has extensive experience in computer-assisted journalism, says the database is too big and complex to understand without the kind of information contained in data dictionaries and record layouts, or at least a complete list of field names and an explanation of the data they contain, which OSU has not offered to provide.

She also points out that she offered to meet with a university information specialist to discuss how that information could be provided without compromising the software license. That would also have allowed her to narrow her request, possibly saving time and effort for OSU.

As an example, Willson says she requested comparable payroll data from the city of Corvallis, which provided a complete list of field names and an explanation of what each field contains after a city information specialist met with her.

OSU officials, however, declined to have such a discussion, Willson said.

“It’s such a simple conversation,” she said. “We could have come to some agreement on how to get the information.”

Nor should student payroll data be considered protected information under FERPA, Willson argued.

“If I’m a student and I want to see my education records, nobody’s going to hand me a copy of the compensation database,” she said.

Gazette-Times editor Mike McInally said the newspaper pursued the appeal in order to protect the public’s ability to get meaningful access to public records in a usable electronic form, as he believes the law allows.

“We think it’s important that interested members of the public be able to access this information in a format they can use and analyze and draw conclusions about compensation at Oregon State University — and, really, any public entity,” McInally said. “We believe that’s the key issue at play here.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

Copyright 2015 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(20) Comments

  1. beerguy
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    beerguy - January 21, 2014 2:37 pm
    Alas, I read that G-T has resubmitted the request in a form which specifically designates BOTH non-student and student compensation; and simplifies the request for the file layout by asking generically for the 'record layout' or something like that.

    A tip of the glass to G-T !
  2. TheRealJules
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    TheRealJules - January 21, 2014 10:07 am
    I was quoting a simple request for information. Names and numbers. No codes necessary. If you want to know what people are being paid that's what you need to ask for. If you ask for codes, that's your problem. You can't know what Jane Doe is making if all you ask for is "position code and number", because seniority means you'll get either a range of numbers or a list of them. "Someone in position code 432945 is making $43,024/yr. Someone else in the same code is making $41,052/yr." Who is who?

    Yes, a person's position is public information. That's why you ask for it that way. Where did I say otherwise? Where did you come up with this nonsense about "defender of privilege"? From the problem with providing that information for student employees? Well, too bad, so sad, it's the law. I understand the reason for it even if you don't. I think is it overkill, but then, I'm not nosy enough to worry about what other people are being paid. I worry about what I'm paid, that's good enough for me. What you get paid is your problem.
  3. TrueConservative
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    TrueConservative - January 17, 2014 8:23 pm
    "Give me a list of names and their pay"

    What are you quoting, Jules?

    Seems like a person's rank and official position in a public institution is public information.

    You too, a defender of privilege at the government teat? Surprised is all...
  4. TheRealJules
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    TheRealJules - January 17, 2014 6:51 pm
    "Give me a list of names and their pay". If you can't tell the difference between a name and a number, that's your problem. When you get the data you aren't getting "variables", you are getting values. If you get "codes", then ask for the data you want instead of codes.

    As for "not including any names", just what good is a list of compensation if you don't know who is getting the money? That's the original goal, to see how much certain people are getting paid. If all you want to know is "someone is getting paid $45,934, someone else is getting paid $43,294, yet another person is getting paid $96,245", then just what kind of journalism do you think is being done?

    And "you too" what, True?
  5. TruthIs
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    TruthIs - January 17, 2014 2:01 pm
    I don't think Bennett's reporting so far provides adequate documentation that "Willson has left OSU over this, like in response, etc. ..." OSU contracts for Professional Faculty typically run July to June to match OSU's fiscal year. From Bennett's spotty reporting, we don't know if Willson was on a standard contract, or why a dedicated educator would chose to leave students mid-year if she had contract protection through June.

    A move from Corvallis to Portland, like any change of residence, ordinarily is not in itself is a minor thing. From the holes in the story, it is fair to at least wonder if WW just made her a better employment offer, an offer that may or may not allow her to stay in Corvallis if she chooses.

    Finally, one can observe the way this has been spun in the G-T so far is pretty good advance publicity for WWeek and whichever stories of her's about this they publish.

    Again the bottom line fact here is that from the reporting so far we don't really know as much about ANY of the substantive details of this situation as the public has a right to know if the issue is about transparency in public institutions.
  6. TruthIs
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    TruthIs - January 17, 2014 1:45 pm
    Your comment: "I don't share your conviction that the GT needs to reproduce all details and documents" is to ambiguous to be meaningful. It doesn't accurately address my point, which I'll restate. There are only two documents here the G-T needs to reproduce, not some unspecified collection which you misleading or carelessly imply by the word "all". Those documents are the G-T's appeal to the DA, and the DA's response. Neither will be that long and the G-T has an obligation to make them available if it claims to be the public's witness because the details are critical to judging the merit of both side's position.

    Indeed, because the the technical details matter, there is a good argument it would take more words to accurately describe all of the details of the request and denial than just providing the documents and letting the public judge for itself. By not providing them, but instead by selectively commenting on them, the G-T has made itself part of the story rather than the public's witness.

    Also if you are a "TrueConservative" rather than just using that handle for PR purposes, you would know that the reason that most local governments give for not just putting everything online is because of the cost and lack of a tax base to cover the cost. Most can't afford a full IT staff to put online and sustain what for even a small municipality amounts to a relatively large data set. And the cloud-based government archiving and data-serving services industry charges relatively high prices unless they also get the right to monetize the data themselves.
  7. TruthIs
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    TruthIs - January 17, 2014 1:33 pm
    Your comment may be technically correct, depending on what you mean by the "database and tables" versus the "data dictionary". "Data dictionary" most commonly refers to an explicit description of the tables and indices in a database, which itself is stored in a database. That data dictionary may be an abstraction of how the "database and tables" are actually organized, or it may be a literal 1-1 description. Here's an example of the documentation for the Oracle 12c RDBMS:

    7. The Data Dictionary

    When OSU exports the data, most commonly as a set of CSV files with one per table per table in the data dictionary, the description of the database and tables represented by the exported representation iteslf as CSV files, would not be proprietary. Moreover, that description would be the contents of the "data dictionary" for that exported representation.

    The issue here could be that the G-T and Willson were not asking for an export of the full database but instead trying to (responsibly) limit the export to just the subset of the data of interest to them. If that is the case, they would need to know the contents of the data dictionary so they could specify that subset. We can't answer that key question from the story, and there could be several reasons for that, because we don't have the text of public records request and the DA's response.
  8. TrueConservative
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    TrueConservative - January 17, 2014 12:30 pm
    And let's not forget that Willson has left OSU over this, likely in response to the lack of support or open hostility shown by her department and the administration. So much for "academic freedom".
  9. TrueConservative
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    TrueConservative - January 17, 2014 12:27 pm
    Et tu, Jules?

    It isn't information unless you know what the codes mean and what the variables stand for. Pretending that the public records law doesn't include that information is silly. Not including any names in the database being handed over would solve any confidentiality issues.
  10. JMS
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    JMS - January 17, 2014 12:20 pm
    The data structure, that is the layout of the database and tables, should certainly be treated as proprietary information belonging to the vendor. The data dictionary, which defines the information kept in the database, is not. If the data is the property of the customer (OSU), then what the data is certainly has to be a part of their property; and not the vendor's. It is uninformed at best, and ignorant at worst, of the D.A. to allow them not to deliver it with the data.
  11. TheRealJules
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    TheRealJules - January 17, 2014 12:05 pm
    No, yammy, disclosing that someone is employed in a position only a student can hold is a pretty explicit declaration that that person is a student. I would be like you posting here "I'm pregnant" (a condition only a woman can have) is a pretty explicit statement that you are a woman. Just an example.
  12. TheRealJules
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    TheRealJules - January 17, 2014 12:03 pm
    The data definitions are not the data, they are the formatting and design of the database tables. OSU didn't say they wouldn't provide the data. Your rant is misplaced and underinformed. "A bunch of numbers" is exactly what a pay database consists of. Name, number.

    As for the student employee data, well, yes, if it is against the law for someone to even admit that someone is a student at a university, then a database listing student employees would be confidential information, too. If I can't tell someone who calls my office on the phone that someone is a student, then a large list of people's names identifying them as students would be just as prohibited.
  13. TrueConservative
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    TrueConservative - January 17, 2014 11:20 am
    I don't share your conviction that the GT needs to reproduce all details and documents.

    It is annoying that the DA hides and charges for all the public records created by his office: http://courts.oregon.gov/Benton/pages/cdsandtranscripts.aspx. This is the 21st century... given that most records are electronic to begin with, posting public information on a public website should be no big deal (indeed, the city is pretty good about that).
  14. TruthIs
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    TruthIs - January 17, 2014 11:18 am
    One other thing Bennett, Mike, Jim, and Theresa: If you are really claiming to be the public's witness, you should be asking Biff Traber as the only announced candidate for Mayor his opinion on this issue.

    In Day's Jan. 14, 2013 story he reported:

    Traber noted that OSU is a “key part of our community and we want to finish what we started with the collaboration and then put together the structure we need to work with OSU in the future.”

    Even as a public entity, OSU has every right to try to refuse to respond to a request for public records. The question here is not whether OSU tries to refuse to respond. As with the failure of the Collaboration, the Mayor, the Council and the City Manager to establish a policy of mitigation that requires OSU must meet certain standards of public behavior just like every other person and entity in Corvallis, the question is whether our elected officials will do their job in drawing the line and enforcing compliance when the law requires. Which is why it is proper and obligatory of the G-T, if the G-T claims to be the press acting as the public's witness, to pointedly put the question to Mayoral candidate Traber.
  15. TaxMaverick
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    TaxMaverick - January 17, 2014 10:57 am
    Ask John Haroldson for the Sheriff’s report where I was charged with “Initiating a false report” for reporting Deputy Jeff Wilcox committing perjury at my earlier trial. It’s obvious retaliation and cover-up. Much juicier than these payroll numbers.

    I know the GT never saw this report because it says, “NO MEDIA RELEASE.”

    Meanwhile, this is the story fed to the GT explaining Wilcox’s stress-cancer death, while I was writing about him to the Oregon Attorney General, Oregon Appeals Courts and Department of Public Safety Standards and Training:

  16. TruthIs
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    TruthIs - January 17, 2014 10:43 am
    Bennett and Mike, the public's right to know and attempts to thwart that is the story here. This report is incomplete at best for reasons explained below. In that way the G-T arguably improperly becomes part of the story by in itself thwarting the public's right to know.

    Your appeal is a public record as is Haroldson's decision. If you really are trying to fully inform the public, you would have posted the text of your appeal and the text of Haroldson's decision, rather than your own superficial, ambiguous summaries of selected content of both. We are not provided with the actual facts, which are the specific issues posed to Haroldson in the appeal and Haroldson's specific decisions on those issues and legal basis for those decisions.

    Your story improperly invites implicatures about what has happened that are favorable to the G-T and the "other plaintiffs", but that in themselves are independent from the public's right-to-know the key facts.

    If you are claiming to act as the public's witness, therefore, your obligation is to post the actual text of your appeal and of Haroldson's decision for the public to read for itself. Otherwise, the public has to file a public records request for both texts to see what all parties in the story are actually saying to each other and trying to accomplish in their own interests. And that would perforce make you just part of the story, not the public's witness.
  17. TruthIs
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    TruthIs - January 17, 2014 10:25 am
    Your points are generally correct @TrueConservative. The only thing I would caution is that the G-T's reporting on the public records aspect of this story right up to this update is, at best, incomplete. (See my next comment above). The Willson personnel angle itself had additional ambiguities that Bennett and the G-T have not clarified.
  18. TrueConservative
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    TrueConservative - January 17, 2014 9:25 am
    So the "tough on crime" DA turns out to be spineless when it comes to OSU. Calling the data definitions "proprietary" is the biggest pile of steaming BS I have heard in awhile. OSU employees are public employees, their compensation is public information (removing names , but not titles, would be appropriate), and maintaining that you can provide a bunch of numbers and codes without explaining what they mean is Orwellian at best. I hope a real public defender decides to run for DA next time--they'll have my vote!
  19. gadfly
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    gadfly - January 17, 2014 8:46 am
    GT: Please don't let this be the ending of this saga. It's too important an issue to quit now. John Haroldson is a nice guy, but he should not have the last word on this. Take it higher, please.
  20. yammy
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    yammy - January 17, 2014 8:28 am
    Perhaps she should revisit her FERPA training. Student employment records have been subject to FERPA disclosure - it's part of the FERPA training that OSU requires.

    Since FERPA generally prevents the university from disclosing that someone is a student, disclosing that they are employed in a student only position implicitly declares the student status.
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