Well, that is not very accurate. It isn’t that they had near six-figure salaries. What this figure reflects is their total pay when you factor in the extra money they were making on various civic boards and commissions. Generally local elected officials also get a car allowance, that sometimes can be significant.
This happens in every city in California. The real issue in Bell was not the money the Council Members were making but rather the ridiculous salaries they were paying their top city officials. I will add however that there are documented instances where these Bell Council Members were getting paid incredibly high salaries for showing up and spending five minutes on board meetings.
Some of our readers on our blogs have tried to compare what is happening in the City of Bell with what is happening here in Santa Ana. Our situation here is different in many ways. Our city officials don’t make the sort of salaries that the administrators in Bell did. And our structural budget deficit is primarily due to the recession, a lack of state and federal funding revenues, and our public employee pensions (paid to cops and firemen who now get to retire at 50).
The real question is should local politicians be making as much money as the Bell Council Members were before they abruptly cut their own pay? The answer is, it depends.
Remember that being a Council Member can have negative repercussions on your income. It can limit the sort of work you do, due to possible conflicts of interest. And it can be a real drag on your personal time. It is a part-time job, true, but it sucks up every minute of free time that a politician might otherwise spend on his family or business.
And city officials have to put up not only with the press but also with us bloggers. I know of one blog in town that has been calling our local elected officials this week and threatening to post their financial information online. I think that bloggers should avoid such stalking behavior. I have been approached by anonymous persons claiming to have proof that two of our Council Members have been cheating on their spouses. In both cases I refused to post that information although I did receive it. I am not sure if the same could be said of these other blogs, which tend to be rabidly partisan.
As for the pay that civic administrators get, it can indeed be far too high. The problem, that the media is not addressing, is that while elected officials come and go at the whim of the voters, the city employees tend to stay. For years. They are hard to get rid of! In fact most city managers have contracts that grant them huge golden parachutes if they are ever terminated.
I have been told that Santa Ana City Manager Dave Ream’s contract would award him three years of salary if he was fired. That is a real disincentive to fire him! So the Council keeps waiting for him to retire, which I suspect will happen very soon.
Guys like Ream survive because when a new Council Member gets elected, the Reams of the world show them how to make money on boards and commissions, then they get them appointed. It is the ultimate insider club. Even when a rebel gets elected to the Council, they too get the treatment. And they either play ball, or get ousted when they come up for reelection.
The salary information is public, but it is hard to get nevertheless. Perhaps city governments should provide it on their websites, but I doubt any City Council would ever approve of that arrangement.
And none of this debate includes the even stickier issues of health benefits and pensions. Did you know that former Santa Ana City Councilwoman Pat McGuigan’s health care is paid for by Santa Ana residents? That’s right. And she gets a large pension too.
SAUSD School Board members get healthcare and pension benefits too. We will be stuck paying for Rosie Avila’s healthcare for years! The same goes for the other longtime SAUSD Trustees, John Palacio and Audrey Noji.
Local elected officials give up a lot when they get elected to serve us – but ultimately they get a lot too. Is it worth it? Well, we have to hold folks accountable, which is the role that blogs serve in this equation.
For example, Minuteman Lupe Moreno has held 4th of July events for several years. But it took our blogs to catch her, with the help of a migrant activist and his video camera – as she brought her hateful Minutemen to town. And we likewise exposed Council Member David Benavides when he tried to honor these haters.
I suspect that the mess in the City of Bell happened, in part, because of a lack of civic blogs. We may not be actual reporters, but we do a great job of publicizing what our local elected officials are up to, when they think no one is looking.
By the way, did you know that residents who serve on city commissions often get paid too? The bully commissioners that we exposed this week, Santa Ana Parks and Rec Commissioners Julie Stroud and Tish Leon, each likely get a check for attending each meeting. This does not hold true for every Commission – and I don’t know for a fact that it applies to this one.
Should residents get paid to attend these meetings? I think it depends. If the Commission meets during work hours, then yes. But if the Commission meets in the off-hours, then no.
What do you think?