Wick Communications

A summer in Bell

In journalism on August 13, 2010 at 7:40 am

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the outlandish situation in Bell, Calif. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this summer that the city manager was earning nearly $800,000 a year, that an assistant city manager made almost $400,000 and that city councilmembers were paid $100,000 a year for their part-time job. Nice work if you can get it. And nice work by a newspaper that spends next to no time covering the city of Bell.

There have been repercussions since that first story. A host of city officials have quit and the elected officials say they are lowering their salaries drastically. More to the point, the scandal has put everyone in the public sector on notice. As James Rainey reports in the L.A. Times, many Americans want to know more about the compensation paid to public officials.

In California, the fury is fresh and deep. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called on all cities to report public salaries prominently on their Web sites (not that I know of a single city yet doing this.) And the Legislature is considering two bills that would essentially cap pay for elected officials in municipalities and make them acknowledge their pay in an open public meeting…

This is where we come in. We don’t need any change in law in order to report public salaries and clearly there is an appetite for such information at the moment.

What if you ran them all in a sort-of spreadsheet in the paper. You could include information about their professional background and how to contact them. I guarantee this will make people unhappy in City Hall. And fear of damaging those relationships probably keeps a lot of us from following through. But readers would eat it up.

I’m reasonably sure some of you are already doing something like this — and long before the Bell blowup. Tell me how you go about it, will you?

— Clay

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  1. Each September in Inside Tucson Business, we publish a page listing the top 24 highest paid government employees in town.

    To gather this information, we first go to the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. We take that information and then verify it with local government agencies. Some states where we have Wick publications most likely have a League of Cities and Towns.

    A companion editorial or editor’s column helps explain why we do this stuff. Sometimes we also do a feature story keyed to the percent raises being handed out.

  2. Thanks, Tom. I honestly hadn’t thought of the League of Cities keeping such data. I’m about to check whether they do that in California.

  3. Here in Williston, N.D., the salaries are all in plain ink in the annual budget the city makes available to us. It takes a little while to go through the 200 pages or so, but all salaries are clear for everyone to read. The part-time mayor, surprisingly, makes just $900 per month, despite working 30 hours per week or so — something we reported on during a recent election. In light of the Bell case, we’re working on a localized story with the top 20 city salaries, but I like Tom’s idea of printing the list annually.

  4. I might want to throw in some other benchmarks alongside my gov’t salaries to provide a little perspective. For example, the Nogales city manager’s $130,000 salary might not look so impressive in its own right, but print it next to the city’s $23,000 mean household income and it takes on a new meaning.

  5. Good point, Jonathan. Some really good ideas here.

    I’ve filed a formal request for salary info for top managers in the city of Half Moon Bay. It’s a little more complicated here since most of these folks are contracted employees — meaning higher hourly charges but not medical, etc. Still sorting it out. But I think we will include demographic info alongside the salaries.

  6. Clay,
    The idea is a good one. Years ago in Mississippi I did a comparison among the city officials of the two small cities in the readership area. It’s all public record, so getting the salaries is easy. If they object, one call to the state or the paper’s attorney is all it should take.
    We have a mayoral election here this year and one of the candidates has a business that has made a fortune off of the city. So I’m having a reporter obtain the vendor records of the past few years to let the readers know how much the city has paid to his company. That’s another way of informing readers some of what goes on. It’s only a call to the Secretary of State’s office to find some interesting connections as to who local governments are doing business with, and what type of political favoritism is involved.

  7. Some of these stories can be timed to coincide with other budget-cycle events. Here in AK, school board are only allowed to sign a superintendent’s contract for up to three years. I found in Kodiak that a longtime Super’s contract—on her fourth third or fourth three-year cycle—was controversial among board members.
    It turned out to be a great time to publish administrator salaries, three or four of which had surpassed the amount the superintendent was able to negotiate. It was also helpful to request more salary information than we ever intended to publish, because we wanted an in-house track record of bureaucrats o the rise.
    If you still have utility contracts or a community-owned hospital or health clinic in your area, do not forget them. Your readers have an interest in the hospital and the electric company, too, and your state’s open records laws may apply to “public agencies” and give you leverage.
    Remember: political parties (even close-knit local cabals) don’t let their operatives go unemployed. When they lose elected power, the operatives often pop up in the administration of some other public entity or they become a contract employee.
    Be firm with them.
    sc

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