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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pennichuck salaries should be public

Telegraph Editorial

Next Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Diane Nicolosi will hear arguments in the suit filed by Local 8938 of the United Steel Workers seeking to block public release of the salaries of Pennichuck Corp. employees.

At issue is whether the city of Nashua’s recent purchase of the water supply utility means workers’ salaries are now part of the public record.

The union acted when it learned The Telegraph sought the pay records as part of our yearly request for the salaries of all Nashua city employees.

We believe that when Pennichuck Water Works stopped being a publicly traded corporation and its ownership was assumed by the city of Nashua, its employees became municipal workers even if their compensation is not directly paid from the city treasury.

We understand this is an unsettling change in status for Pennichuck workers who do not want their compensation disclosed. However, when balanced against privacy rights of employees, the greater public good is served by releasing the salaries to the public.

It doesn’t matter if City Hall won’t manage the utility’s day-to-day operations. The bottom line is that the city is on the hook for $152 million in general obligation bonds used to purchase Pennichuck’s assets as well as fund golden parachutes for former executives ($2.2 million), underwrite legal and other fees ($5.5 million), assume existing debt ($60 million) and fill a rate stabilization fund ($5 million).

Yes, the plan is for that $152 million to be paid off by Pennichuck ratepayers, but in the end, if things don’t work out as planned, it’s Nashua taxpayers who will be left holding the bag. If that doesn’t justify the public’s right to know, then it’s time for the Legislature to make sure it does.

Credit should be given to Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and several city aldermen who believe the information should be part of the public record. Throughout the decade-long acquisition process, city officials have solidly backed openness and transparency. It’s understood in City Hall that continued public support for the acquisition is rooted in maintaining the public’s trust. Secrecy breeds mistrust.

“I am confident that our team can deliver on our city’s ultimate goal established 10 years ago: control of our water supply and watershed lands so that the city can preserve and protect this essential public resource now and for generations to come,” Lozeau said at the ceremony celebrating the sale.

Indeed, it’s ultimately the city’s responsibility to ensure the goals established by the purchase of Pennichuck Corp. are achieved. For city officials to be held accountable, the public needs access to the information about how the utility is being operated. A key element of that evaluation is worker salaries, regardless of whether those workers are officially city employees.

Although the Pennichuck particulars are unique, in similar cases, New Hampshire courts have generally ruled in favor of disclosure. In one such case, the N.H. Supreme Court found: “Public access to specific salary information gives direct insight into the operations of the public body by enabling scrutiny of the wages paid for particular job titles.”

The question is whether the court will conclude Pennichuck Water Utilities is a “public body.” We believe it became one when the city purchased all of its stock and assumed responsibility for its ultimate mission to provide a vital service to Nashua citizens at a reasonable cost.