Request for a staff member’s salary from educational institution
Request to University for information as to whether staff member was in receipt of a salary and if so the nature of her duties—information withheld to protect privacy—public interest considerations
The requester in this case was a newspaper reporter who suspected that a particular staff member at Waikato University was in receipt of a salary while not being required to perform any duties. The staff member had held a position that had been disestablished some months previously, and no announcement had been made of her appointment to another role. The reporter consequently sought from the University the following information:
whether the person in question was still being paid by the University;
if so, the nature of her duties; and
the total of any salary paid to that person since the disestablishment of her previous position.
The University responded to the requester by confirming that the subject was still an employee. However, it declined to answer the other two questions and in doing so relied upon section 9(2)(a) of the OIA.
In the course of the review it became clear that although the subject of the request had recently been appointed to another position, she had received a full salary of a specified amount for a period of some ten months. Moreover, she had not been required to perform any specific duties during that time. After consultation with both the Privacy Commissioner and the staff member concerned, it was accepted that the requirements of section 9(2)(a) were made out in respect of this information. Relevant considerations here included the likelihood of media attention and the fact that remuneration information is normally considered as private to the recipient.
It was then necessary to consider, in terms of section 9(1) of the OIA, whether there were any public interest considerations that outweighed the privacy interests in withholding the information. In this respect, the public interest favouring disclosure was the accountability of the University, as a public body, for the manner in which it expended public funds. This accountability interest was considered to be particularly strong in an instance such as this, where funds had been used on the salary of an employee who had not been required to perform any specific duties.
After balancing the competing interests, the view was reached that the University ought to disclose a statement confirming that the relevant staff member was not required to perform any specific duties during the period in question, but without disclosing the level of salary received during that time. It was considered that such a statement would go some way towards meeting the public interest in disclosure, while at the same time limiting the infringement upon the subject’s privacy.
The University agreed to disclose the statement and the investigation was concluded on that basis.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.