The fallout from the reports of the disgracefully high-paid Bell city employees is mounting.
Reporters are digging. They want to know every detail of every dollar and any crooked numbers will be exposed. They’re looking for corruption.
Exactly what does the City Manager make and how many positions does he or she hold? How much does a council member expense per year? The police chief just retired, what will he or she take home as a pension?
The unearthing has already begun. My inbox is filled each day with numerous allegations of corruption in a given city or county – “Hey, look into what’s going on in this city.”
People are angry. Outraged. Sometimes for good reason, sometimes just to be outraged. Local government employees are under the microscope more than ever.
Los Angeles Times reporter Catherine Saillant – along with Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives – has done a brilliant job investigating the city of Bell, and it’s just the beginning.
“We are getting tips everyday and following up,” Saillant said in a phone interview.
“The public is so energized on this. I have never seen a response like this to a story and I’ve been a journalist for 23 years.”
The trust is broken at every level of government and it comes at a time when taxpayers are counting every penny. So are local government employees ready for the push for information?
“I think so,” said Chris McKenzie, Executive Director of the League of California Cities, which as an organization publicly condemned the city of Bell. “The old expression we use is that you get used to living in a fish bowl. It goes with the turf, the public has a right to know these things.
“It’s very frustrating that it comes from a result of abuses that are beyond the pale and that managers will be painted with the same brush.”
The fact is that the majority of city employees are compensated reasonable wages for extraordinary services. Many aren’t paid nearly what they could earn in the private sector. Local governments are not looking to hire power decision-makers on the cheap, nor should they. Certainly you get what you pay for and the last thing government needs is incompetence in leadership. But that’s not always easy to explain on your heels. Be proactive. Be accessible. Put it all out there.
Just as steroids destroyed the integrity of sluggers in baseball, government employees now must prove that their salaries are not juiced.
My advice to those in local government already living in a fish bowl: embrace the bowl. Make it easy for constituents to see your salaries. Post in on your Web site. Control the information; don’t wait for reporters to come asking.
If you have earned the pay and deserve the pay, then say so.
If you’re cheating the system and earning more than you’re worth, the public is going to find out – now, probably sooner than later.
James Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org