The State Controller has performed a miracle.

Just months ago, he defied Governor Schwarzenegger’s order to cut state employee pay to minimum wage, citing insufficient resources and a too out-dated computer systems. And yet, on Monday he published a database of local government employee compensation for about 400 of California’s cities.

How did he do that? During budget deficits, did he hire more people? Did he update his computers? However he did it, he managed to put a valuable resource on the web for citizens, employees, and reporters.

When all is said and done, he hopes to have a database of all local government employees – including all special districts, counties, and cities. It will be a massive database and for the government Watchdogs, it could be a gold mine.

I was interviewed about this database (and if you’ve ever wondered what happens when an online editor finds himself on the other side of the camera, you can look at the video here.) But I think that report only tells part of the story.

I think both the skeptics and proponents of local government will find that this database will serve to vindicate nearly every employee.

If you spent days sifting through all the information available, what do you think you’ll find? A city manager in Beverly Hills who makes $480k a year? Yep, that’s in there. You can find information about city managers in Santa Monica, Fresno, Roseville, Lincoln, or Red Bluff. Some of these Public CEOs make more than the city manager of Los Angeles.

To the people who would immediately cry foul, I ask that you ponder the reasons. With smaller staffs, greater responsibilities fall to fewer people. That could require longer hours and justify the pay.

Or in certain cities, a city manager is also responsible for water, trash, or sewage districts too. These aren’t jobs that fall to the city manager in Los Angeles. Certainly there are a dozen different companies handling trash or different districts for water.

In Roseville, the city manager also has to help run a utility company. He oversees 2,300 employees. How much is that level of responsibility worth to you? How much would it receive in the private market?

So say you find fifty, or a hundred, or even two hundred and fifty salaries that raise an eyebrow. Out of 584,000 reported so far, that’s barely four hundredths of one percent.

Even if a salary raises an eyebrow, it doesn’t immediately scream corruption. In the wake of Bell, we are so quick to hunt down the next great scandal that we forget that data isn’t reason, without context there can be no information.

In other words, our local government employees ought be given the benefit of the doubt. They ought to be recognized for their work. They ought to be commended for playing by the rules, because nearly all of them do.

So if you work for local government and you look at that database to see what your boss makes; if you live in a city and want to see how much your city manager makes; or if you’re a supposed ‘watchdog;’ find the numbers. But then find the answers, too.

This data should be a starting point for an investigation and not the trial, judge, and jury.