Muni Man on $800,000 Peels Back Government Pay Veil: Joe Mysak

Exorbitant. Outrageous. Obscene. Unconscionable.

These are just a few of the words that public officials in California have used to describe the pay scandal in Bell, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Bell is the city that paid its manager $787,637, his assistant $376,288, and the police chief $457,000. After the Los Angeles Times ran an article describing these paydays, the citizens took to the streets. The officials resigned.

Now everyone in California, from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on down, is condemning Bell’s runaway salaries and embracing transparency. Cities have been told to post the information online for all to see. The public, at long last, is paying attention to public finance.

It took the League of California Cities one week to condemn the Bell pay setup. Now the organization is offering to help with the state and county investigations that have been initiated, and with legislation mandating transparency on government compensation.

“This was so excessive, such an aberration, so beyond the pale of what is reasonable,” said Chris McKenzie, the league’s executive director.

Mayor Backtracks

There have been no apologists.

That’s a surprise. I was looking for someone, somewhere, in a responsible position, to defend the notion that the manager of a city with a population of 38,000 deserved $800,000 a year, and the accompanying fat pension.

I was waiting for someone to say that populism is all well and good, but let’s be realistic, city managers need to be compensated.

Mayor Oscar Hernandez of Bell almost accommodated. The mayor put out a press release after the offending officials resigned, saying the salaries were “in line with similar positions over the period of their tenure.” A few days later, he backtracked, calling the salaries “indefensible.”

I thought I found what I was looking for on the website of the International City/County Management Association: “While the Bell situation is unusual and certainly an outlier, dedicated public employees should be fairly compensated for the hard work they do,” the ICMA said.

“That compensation should not be so far out of alignment, however, that it undermines the public trust, particularly during this time of financial duress,” the statement said.

Nobody has endorsed $800,000 city managers.

Salary Survey

I asked McKenzie whether government salaries had become inflated over the past five years, especially compared with those available in business, which have stagnated.

He said he hadn’t tracked it, that “anecdotally” compensation might have increased as the economy heated up, and that there were tremendous variations from city to city. His organization is surveying the 400 California cities that have managers on their payrolls, and is going to publish the results. Most city managers, he said, are outraged by Bell.

It looks like Californians are going to have a detailed discussion of what they pay for their government. Maybe after that, the state will address things like spending too much and how to overhaul the public pension system. Perhaps the rest of us will, too.

Legislate Transparency

In case you consider this government-payroll business trivial, or even a distraction from larger issues, keep in mind that it took the public’s abiding fascination with “who makes what” to spark a kind of revolution in state- and local-government transparency.

You would think basic information on how much public officials earn would be readily available, or at least yours for the asking. And you would be wrong. Governments, many of them, resist inquiry. At this point, I can’t imagine many other $800,000-a-year city managers, if they are out there, encouraging cooperation with the civic watchdogs, can you?

So yes, by all means, let’s legislate for transparency in government. It’s too bad we can’t do the same for civic-mindedness. It’s one thing for the public to be angry at excesses, and quite another for the citizens to be engaged with their government.

(Joe Mysak is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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