Foster: Tempest in a database

Foster: Tempest in a database

October 10th, 2010 by J. Todd Foster in Opinion Columns

The e-mails have flooded in since last Sunday, when we launched an online database project that included nearly 20,000 names and salaries of local government workers.

The barrage included words like "shameful" and "appalling" and "outrageous" and "horrible," as well as threats of legal action.

You'd have thought we ran another picture of a bedbug on the front page.

The e-mails had a common denominator: They all were from Erlanger Health System employees. That's not surprising since Erlanger management, intent on fomenting employee angst, notified their workers in advance, according to an Erlanger memo obtained by the Times Free Press.

"WHAT HAPPEN TO OUR RIGHTS TO PRIVACY," an Erlanger employee wrote. "Please read the bible verse listed below because you all leaned on your own understanding and you did not seek the LORD."

She then quoted Proverbs 3:5-6, which states in the King James Version, "Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."

While I certainly have leaned on the LORD many times in my life, I must confess to never conferring with him about online newspaper content. I just figured the LORD was not a micromanager and had bestowed upon me certain talents, and that he was delegating the day-to-day duties of journalism to me.

I'm not sure how the LORD feels about the First Amendment, but he sure does advocate truth and justice in the Bible.

Isaiah 59:9, New International Version, states: "So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows."

Taking public information from the shadows and subjecting it to nature's best disinfectant, sunshine, is a good and noble thing. That's particularly true when the information comes from local institutions funded in whole or in part (Erlanger) by local taxpayers. Armed with such information, taxpayers then are educated and can seek justice.

A common complaint from the Erlanger employees was that we violated their privacy and made them susceptible to identity theft. The assertion is ludicrous: The database contains names, titles and salaries, not dates of birth, addresses or Social Security numbers. Even hometowns aren't listed.

The people listed in this database are no more susceptible to identity theft than the high school quarterback named in the Sports pages 10 Saturdays a year or the quilter featured in the Life section.

It's interesting to note that of the 50 or so complaints I received over the database, not a single one was from a police officer, firefighter, teacher or other public-sector worker.

Several of the Erlanger complaints stated it was OK to publish their managers' salaries but not theirs. One of the beauties of this database is it applies to all public employees. We didn't cherry pick which ones were listed, or have to make a distinction about who constituted management and who didn't - a task so labor-intensive that the whole project would have been prohibitive.

The Erlanger employees who stated that their salaries are no one's business obviously are not well versed on the Tennessee public records law or possibly even Erlanger's status as a public hospital.

Several Erlanger employees demanded to know the salaries of Chattanooga Times Free Press employees. We happily will disclose our salaries the day our private company is purchased by the city of Chattanooga and funded with your tax dollars.

When Erlanger stops taking taxpayer money, then we'll remove Erlanger employees from the database.

J. Todd Foster is executive editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and prays he doesn't get sick or hurt and have to visit Erlanger hospital. He can be reached at or 423-757-6472.