This summer the media, locally and nationally, has been scolding city government in the Los Angeles County city of Bell as revelations have multiplied. It started with a Los Angeles Times investigation into exorbitant salaries of the city manager, City Council members and some department heads.
This has riveted the attention of citizens and would-be reformers and brought new scrutiny to government compensation in Bell. And, predictably, many other cities in California.
The Coachella Valley city of Indio, in particular, is vibrating in the Bell year.
Last winter, before most of its citizens had ever heard of the city of Bell, Indio residents were talking about financial problems in the Riverside County city of 84,000.
While Indio in recent years has been laying off staff and cutting services, the city manager in 2007 had received a big raise to $300,000 (but still less than half the eye-popping compensation for Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, who recently resigned). The 2007 move caused the Press-Enterprise to survey the area and make the case that Indio had “raised the standard for city-manager pay” and “broke the Inland pay ceiling” of $300,000.
One result, several years later, is a city in fiscal crisis a few months after controversial City Manager Glenn Southard retired. The new manager, Dan Martinez, said in late August the city is projecting an annual deficit of $3 million next year.
Earlier this year, several city officials said they had been interviewed by a grand jury asking questions about Indio finances. There is no indication if that investigation is continuing, and a District Attorney’s spokesperson declined to address that.
Also, there was a flap over the use of city credit cards. Southard retired as of April 1, but there was still a dispute, well covered in local newspapers, over how much accumulated vacation time he could cash in.
After the Bell revelations this summer, new public scrutiny came Indio’s way, as well. Predictably, a prominent news angle has been to look at other city managers with relatively high pay.
Although Martinez was hired at a salary 42 percent less than Southard, the salary and generous benefits of Southard have still been fair game, lampooned in a recent column by the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez and a blog of Indio civic interest.
In August, a formal complaint about Indio finances was filed with the California Attorney General’s Office, said Mike Wilson, a former Indio City Council member who is running Nov. 2 to regain his seat. Wilson said the complaint was written by a former city staffer, whom Wilson declined to identify.
The Attorney General’s Office has a policy of not discussing such complaints, said Press Secretary Christine Gasparac. Martinez said the city had received no notification of an investigation by the AG’s office.
Attorney General Jerry Brown has announced his office is issuing subpoenas to Bell officials and establishing a complaint “hotline.” The Bell investigation includes review of “whether excessive salaries and pension benefits are being paid by local jurisdictions around the state,” according to a Brown press release.
Martinez said Indio has made recent strides in transparency, including the creation of a Citizens Finance Advisory Committee, “made up of Indio residents who take a hard look at our city finances, policies, etc., and make recommendations to City Council.”
He added, “We have long been committed to transparency and honoring the public’s trust – long before the most recent controversies.”
Martinez also noted civic progress in the last two years, citing new parks, roads, shopping centers and public facilities to serve youth and senior populations.
“In the economic downturn, the city has ensured compensation is in line with the region and continues to make budget reductions,” Martinez said.
The city has tightened its belt, he said: Employees have received no Cost of Living Allowance or merit increases this year. Furthermore, Martinez said, all managers received a permanent 10 percent salary reduction, and employees furloughs have achieved 10 percent in salary reductions.
The city’s voters, conscious of Bell’s excesses and Indio’s recent fiscal history, will have their say, candidate Wilson said.
“The number one issue is fixing the structural deficiency that was created by the former administrative regime and current City Council regime,” said Wilson. “We need to be fixing their mistakes and going onward.”
Wilson said political activists now working for his election two years ago were dissenters from his message that a City Council majority was a rubber stamp for “the Southard machine,” which used restricted funding to finance salary increases and overspending on bonds for public works, Wilson said.
Southard could not be reached for comment.
For the record, Southard draws a pension of $21,299.93 a month, which is $255,599.16 annually, according to CalPERS. This is based on a final salary in Indio of $309,375. Included in the formula was Southard’s service for 17 years as Claremont city manager.
In 2005 as a council member, Wilson said he supported Southard’s hiring. “On paper and in his interview, he was killer,” Wilson said.
Southard’s salary was pegged high at $240,000, Wilson said, but he felt this was justified by the responsibility in managing a city on the brink of a period of population growth and fighting an image problem because of gang and other crime problems.
In 2007, the council bumped Southard’s salary to $300,000, with other salary and benefit sweeteners, Wilson said. The vote was 4-1 with Wilson against. Wilson said he felt “blindsided” by the contract extension after negotiations in a subcommittee that he was unaware of.
Lance Howland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org