The Bell scandal has put public payrolls in the spotlight.
That’s why the Pacific Coast Business Times has connected the dots up and down the Tri-County region, with a comprehensive survey on city manager and county executive officer pay.
Our survey was conducted over the past few weeks under the direction of Executive Editor Tony Biasotti. It is fair and factual.
What we found was that there is often very little logic to the pay for city managers compared to the size of their cities or their locations. Nor was there much logic to the level of benefits any two city managers from comparable cities received. Some cities give their top executives tens of thousands of dollars a year in deferred compensation — in addition to their already generous pensions — while others don’t have deferred compensation at all.
A number of bills are working through the Legislature to “reform” various aspects of executive pay in the public sector. We’d point to two things that need to be done:
1. The rules on transparency and disclosure need to be tightened. Public official pay is a public matter and there ought to be an easy way for ordinary citizens and the public to know what the total compensation of their executives really is. Responses to media or citizen requests for this information, even from out of town or out of state, ought to be a matter of clicks and minutes, and not lengthy correspondence that takes weeks. Longtime political observer Herb Gooch of California Lutheran University warns that perks are easy to shield from voters because they are harder to understand.
2. There is a dangerous tendency for city manager pay to ratchet up sharply as people move from location to location. This leapfrogging of compensation — sometimes at a 20 percent to 30 percent clip — has put the pay for new managers at small communities out of whack with that of established managers at larger communities. Some of this is justified in that the job of city manager can carry a lot more responsibility in some communities than others. The cost of living also varies from city to city. But given the state’s dire fiscal condition, the inflation in city manager pay does have echoes of what happened to CEO pay in financial services right up to the time that the banking industry collapsed.
Nobody wants to stop job candidates and municipalities from engaging in private negotiations to secure the best fit at the best price. And nobody wants to stop a superstar city manger from getting fair compensation.
But greater transparency, and perhaps a greater linking of pay to city performance, would start to put executive pay in the public sector on a sounder fiscal track.