A TAXING SITUATION
The LA Times coverage of municipal salaries in the city of Bell has focused a lot of attention on what had previously been an area examined mainly by gadflies. Local newspapers haven't seemed to care much about such arcana and that lack of scrutiny has allowed city governments, including Claremont's, to dismiss citizen's concerns about such things as city employee and city council compensation.
The excesses in Bell, however, have turned up the heat on city councils everywhere, including our little burg. At Tuesday's meeting of the Claremont City Council, mayor Linda Elderkin felt compelled to point out that Claremont's council members only receive a $400-per-month stipend. Elderkin neglected to mention, however, what she and other council members receive for attending meetings of the Claremont Redevelopment Agency or various regional boards the council members serve on, which is where Bell's council members made the bulk of their nearly $100,000 per year. Still, in Claremont, the total compensation is a fraction of what was seen in Bell, and readers can rest assured that Claremont City Manager Jeff Parker doesn't earn anywhere near the $787,000 former Bell City Manager Robert (not to be confused with Ratso "I'm walkin' heeyuh") Rizzo received.
In any case, local cities are now taking steps to distance themselves from Bell, hence Mayor Elderkin's characteristically blissful lack of self-reflection when she declaimed Tuesday night, "We are not in the realm of the Bell councils." As usual, the obtuse Elderkin missed the point entirely. It's not that Claremont's level of veniality can begin to approach that of Bell's. What ever corruption we have here isn't at all of the same sort as Bell. We're not paying exorbitant salaries and benefits for corrupt officials. Rather, here we pay a premium, a stupidity tax, for want of a better term. It's why we four years ago Claremont's ruling class, the Claremont 400, tried to institute a $45 million assessment district to pay for a $12 million parcel of open space.
Our city's mistakes may not be criminal in nature, but they can be costly. Casual observers of our town see what a wonderful place it appears to be, but they don't understand that the same sense of wonder could have been achieved for a fraction of the costs - costs that include untenable employee pension obligations and unneeded or extravagant city services.
ADVICE OF COUNSEL
We also noticed that Bell's city attorney, Robert Lee, didn't escape criticism. The LA Times reported in today's edition that the city of Downey, which also employs Lee, is ending its contract with him and his firm, Best, Best & Krieger, simply because they don't want to risk being associated with the Bell scandal.
As the Times article noted, city attorneys have a tough balancing act. They have to represent the interests of the citizens of the municipalities they work for but only so far as those interests are represented by officials elected by those same citizens - that is, the city council members. So, what happens when a council acts illegally, unethically, or irresponsibly? Should a city attorney speak up publicly, should they resign, or should they be supportive of the council?
The idea that a city attorney doesn't represent citizens directly but rather represents the council majority is one that informs our own city attorney Sonia Carvalho's legal philosophy. Coincidentally, Carvalho also works for Best, Best & Krieger and has also once worked for a city, Colton in her case, that had council members who were subjects of a federal corruption probe about 10 years ago.
Carvalho's legal advice isn't always reserved for the controlling majority of the city council. It sometimes extends to free legal opinions for the Claremont 400, as it did in 2007 when Mayor Elderkin was first running for council. At that time, one of the big issues was the possibility that Vulcan Materials Co. might begin gravel mining operations on land in northeast Claremont. Elderkin had a potential conflict of interest in any city business with Vulcan because her husband Rick is a Pomona College mathematics professor. Pomona College had a small ownership interest in the land Vulcan was interested in.
When that potential conflict became an issue in the 2007 campaign, Elderkin sought and received an opinion from Carvalho that Elderkin faced no conflict of interest. Carvalho, who didn't provide legal consultations to any other 2007 council candidates, did give Elderkin a freebie. Carvalho's legal opinion should at least have been reported as an in-kind campaign contribution, but Elderkin couldn't even be troubled to do that much.
(By the way, state attorney general's office, tell us again why you didn't look into that?)
We believed then, as we do now, that Claremont and every other city in California would be best served finding city attorneys whose philosophies of governance incorporate a greater concern for the actual town citizens, not just the controlling majority of the five elected city officials and the people who in turn control those council members.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
One other Bell-related item on the LA Times' LA Now blog was a report that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called for cities to post the salaries of top officials online.
On this issue, the Insider was way ahead of the curve. Almost three years ago, we obtained and shared the city of Claremont's payroll information from the city's online document archive. The information was posted in the form of pay stub information.
Our advice to Governor Schwarzenegger on this one: tread lightly. For our having posted that very public information, City Attorney Carvalho contacted Google, which hosts our blog, and threatened to take them to court if they did not remove the pay stub information immediately. Carvalho falsely accused the Insider of having stolen the information. Then, after the theft accusations were shown to be false, she claimed the pay stubs could not be posted because they were protected by copyright laws (also a false legal theory).
The Daily Bulletin ended up posting an image of one of the pay stubs themselves, after redacting all the personal information. The Bulletin, unlike the Insider, did not receive any nasty-grams from Carvalho, who did have a heapin' portion of crow to chew on in the aftermath of Paystubgate.
The Claremont pay stub information, incidentally, showed that our city employees were compensated quite well, especially after one includes things like bonuses and benefits - information that the city has never been willing to release and information that is supposed to be public, according to California law.
A reader contacted us and noted that yesterday's weekly report from City Manager Jeff Parker had the news that Claremont had started posting the salaries of top city officials, including Parker and the city council, on the City's website. Here's what Parker's report said:
CLAREMONT ADMINISTRATIVE AND COUNCIL SALARY INFORMATION AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC
As the media reports on the City of Bell's salaries for council and administrative staff, residents across the country are discussing the compensation of their own City officials. In accordance with the City of Claremont's open communication philosophy, the City of Claremont makes this information readily available to the public.
Each member of the City Council receives $400 per month compensation and an additional $30 per Redevelopment Agency meeting. The City Council does not receive retirement benefits and during the 2010-12 budget process, medical benefits were eliminated from council's budget. City commissioners are appointed by the City Council and receive no compensation.
As detailed in the budget, the City Manager's annual salary is $211,000 and the Assistant City Manager's annual salary is $165,000. The Police Chief's annual salary is $174,000. These salaries are based on surveys of comparable cities with similar services and populations to Claremont's 37,000 residents. Cities surveyed include Upland, Brea, La Verne, Glendora, Arcadia, Azusa, Covina, Rialto, Montclair, Monrovia, and Chino.
A complete list of salary ranges for each City position is available upon request through the City Clerk's office. For additional information, please call the City Manager's Office at 909-399-5441
Parker fails to inform the public that transparency only goes so far. We still don't get any information on bonuses and benefits, which together constitute a good chunk of total employee compensation.
According to another LA Times article on Bell, the idea of posting the salary information was supposed to be discussed in Sacramento yesterday at a meeting of city managers hosted the League of California Cities. The public disclosure is one action the League thinks will mute the public's ire over the Bell situation. It also shows that the League is more concerned with the plight of city employees than with the concerns of actual citizens.
The Times described the purpose of the meeting as "damage control," which implies the League wants to put its spin on the story rather than considering whether Bell is an extreme example of a wider malaise. The League is an interest group like any other, and its interests lie in preserving as much of the status quo as possible, to the greater detriment of the people who have to actually pay municipal bills.