Public business

April 18, 2004

LET'S SAY a state employee working under a contract fixes your street, and you're curious about how much he was paid and whether that included any performance incentives.

Let's say further that state officials, upon your inquiries, tell you only how much he made but won't let you even take a look at his contract to see how that was figured.

If you find that outrageous -- roadwork is public business, after all, involving public money -- then you ought to welcome a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling Thursday in a case initiated by this newspaper against the University of Maryland, College Park.

More than two years ago, Sun reporter Jon Morgan began seeking to review the contracts of UM football coach Ralph Friedgen and basketball coach Gary Williams, among the very highest-paid state employees. Over time, the school has provided some details of their pay, but has steadfastly denied access to their contracts.

In its ruling, Maryland's highest court rejected UM's claim that these contracts could be construed as a private matter under the state's public information law. The court also raised the possibility that the coaches' contracts with apparel and shoe firms also may be open to public review, as they stem from public employment.

As of Friday, UM was still dragging its feet in providing copies of the coaches' contracts, unnecessarily so, in our view. Once released, these contracts ought to provide a much better understanding of not only how these celebrities are compensated but perhaps the degree to which they're richly rewarded for winning as opposed to, say, for their players' academic standing.

But there's a lot more to the public's interest here than just athletic spending. This ruling ought to open the way for public review of myriad state employment contracts now typically kept veiled -- including those of university presidents, economic development officials and even some big-name professors.

If they're paid with public money, like UM coaches, their contracts are public business, and ought to be readily available to citizens.

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