WGCL’s ongoing effort to root out waste in Atlanta’s city government is admirable. Its most recent installment hits the target but misses the bulls-eye. And that’s a vast improvement over its last effort, which completely missed and was a bit of an embarrassment.
This time, investigative reporter Wendy Saltzman crunched some payroll numbers and found some eye-opening data: A handful of city employees had doubled and tripled their salaries by working overtime. Saltzman showed the numbers to a couple of city council members who were shocked, shocked that the city was paying so much overtime while in the throes of a budget crisis. So far, so good.
Saltzman also tracked down the department head whose agency paid the most overtime, a man who had spent months ignoring WGCL’s requests for an interview. Watershed Management director Rob Hunter had a ready answer: One of his employees abruptly left, and another employee essentially worked two jobs. But Saltzman found that the employee’s overtime began months before the departure of his co-worker. Good stuff.
Then the story sputters a bit. Saltzman produced man-on-the-street interviews with garden-variety residents who expressed the same kind of shock as the council members. The encounters probably went something like this:
Saltzman: Ma’am, I’m with CBS-46. May I talk with you for a moment?
Person on the street: What? Me? What’d I do?
Saltzman: Nothing. What if I told you that some Atlanta city workers were doubling or tripling their regular salaries by working overtime?
POTS: Huh? What?
Saltzman: You know, the city is laying off workers and closing fire stations. But they’re paying all this overtime to city workers.
POTS: That doesn’t sound right. Seems like the city needs to get its act together and fix that.
Saltzman: Want to say that on camera?
The interviews added nothing because the interviewees had no real knowledge about the situation or city government. If Saltzman had asked the head of an NPU or a neighborhood association, it would have had more credibility. Likewise, a Human Resources expert at a local university might have shed light on it.
But had she done that, they probably would have asked a question that WGCL’s investigation doesn’t ask: Is the city really paying a water management supervisor only $33,000 a year to do his job? And a person below him, only $25,000? The overtime earnings of these folks — excessive or not — only elevate them to a living wage.
It’s also worth noting that when Saltzman listed the departments paying the most overtime, the Sanitation department wasn’t among them. Saltzman’s previous investigative miscue focused on Sanitation. Time to move on.
Saltzman is on the right track, digging up whistleblowers and doing records-based investigative reporting. This story, though imperfect, is a solid step in the right direction for WGCL.