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Why we report public salaries
Aug. 2, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

Some people do not like the fact that we report public salaries in the newspaper.

Often, those who object are recipients of public salaries.

The reason we report this information is simple. Unlike those in the private sector, public employees are paid with tax dollars, and taxpayers have a right to know how their taxes are being spent.

The scandal that was recently revealed in Bell, CA, is an excellent example of why public salaries should be reported.

It is not clear how things got to the point they did, but it was a Los Angeles Times investigation, based on California Public Records Act requests, that brought the situation to light.

Bell is a working-class suburb southeast of downtown Los Angeles. About 17 percent of city residents live in poverty.

That may be part of the reason reaction was so strong when the Times revealed that most of Bell’s city council members were making nearly $100,000 per year for part-time work.

One council member, Lorenzo Velez, was making about $8,000 per year, which is more in line with council members in cities of similar size (about 40,000 residents), because he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council, rather than being elected like the rest of the crooks (I mean council members).

In addition to inflated council wages, Bell’s chief administrative officer, Robert Rizzo, was making $787,637 annually; Police Chief Randy Adams was making $457,000 per year, and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia was making $376,288.

These council and staff members may have been laughing all the way to the bank, but city residents didn’t see anything funny about it.

Incredibly, in its first public statement about the issue, the city defended the salaries.

Mayor Oscar Hernandez said Rizzo’s salary was well within reason for the excellent job he did.

The League of California Cities disagreed. A Times article stated that the group was working on proposed legislation to prevent a repeat of the Bell salary situation, and was unaware of any city in the nation where salaries of this level are paid for comparable positions.

Hernendez also stated that the city had achieved 15 years of balanced budgets, as if that somehow justified the obscene salaries.

Councilman Luis Artiga said he welcomed the investigation, and added “I don’t think we’re stealing or doing anything wrong.”

Under pressure of public outrage, the city later reversed its position.

Hernandez apologized and said he would take no salary for the rest of his term.

Council members voted to reduce their salaries by 90 percent, and two said they would not seek re-election.

I love that. It fascinates me when elected officials say they will not seek re-election, as if they are making some great sacrifice, when it is obvious that they have no chance of being re-elected if they were to run.

Under current economic conditions, many companies have cut or frozen wages, but this was not the case in Bell, at least not for city employees.

Rizzo’s salary was $72,000 per year when he was hired in 1993. He must have received some very generous raises to inflate his salary to nearly $800,000. He was definitely getting more than cost-of-living increases.

Adams did pretty well after taking the job in Bell, also. One report said he doubled his retirement income in his first year on the job.

In a July 21 story, the Times reported that Rizzo could become the highest-paid person on the state’s retirement program if forced out of his job, because he could qualify for a pension of $659,252 per year for the rest of his life.

Adams wouldn’t be left out in the cold, either. According to the Times, he could qualify for a pension of $411,300.

A former Bell council member, Victor Bello, who resigned last August, is also doing OK for himself. He became the first and only full-time employee at the city’s food bank, at a salary of $96,000, about the same as he was making on the council.

Bello also earns some extra pocket money by continuing to serve on city boards, even though city resolutions state that commissioners must be council members.

That, by the way, is one of the schemes the Bell council members used to inflate their incomes. According to the Times, they received stipends for serving on various boards or commissions, all of which met during regular council meetings.

Some might call that double-dipping.

Rizzo, Adams, and Spaccia have since agreed to step down, and will reportedly not receive severance packages.

One hopes that they will be able to make ends meet.

I don’t know how the situation in Bell was allowed to go on so long, but even though it is an extreme case, it provides a good lesson.

When tax dollars are involved, it is never a good idea to leave a group of people in charge of their own compensation without some form of oversight.

This oversight should include review by the taxpayers who pay their salaries and benefits.

Public opinion, perhaps more than any regulation that could be enacted, is likely to help keep public compensation in line with community standards, and serving the community, rather than themselves, is what public employees and elected officials should be doing.