We are the graduate students in Brandman University’s MPA program who collected the data for Barbara Kogerman’s Orange County City Manager Compensation report.

That report-released two months before the Los Angeles Times broke “Bell”– produced a firestorm of criticism from local city managers, elected officials, and the Southern California League of Cities.

Our work was called sloppy and incompetent.  And veiled threats were made that we would never find work in the public sector in Orange County. The Orange County city managers association even voted to send a delegation of elected officials and a League of Cities administrator to complain to Jim Doti, the president of the Chapman University, about the harm our efforts were having on Chapman’s reputation. (Brandman is part of the Chapman University system).

The California League of Cities released its own report of city manager salaries.  Their effort confirms several of the things we found in our 4 month investigation.

We had to chuckle when we read that the Leagues’ data were “not perfect” since our data were harshly criticized for being inaccurate. They have a paid full time staff and surveyed their own membership, who, in Bell’s wake, was highly motivated to cooperate. We are un-paid interns using public records act requests to take on 34 city halls. 

More importantly, the California League of Cities survey did not include many of the benefits and perks that city managers have negotiated-including employer- paid health insurance premiums and contributions to defined benefit retirement plans, as well as many other perks not reported to the IRS. We did include these data; they were not easy to get.  Here were some of the obstacles we faced:

Conflicting Answers:

  • Delays: It took weeks and sometimes months to get answers to basic questions regarding benefits such as health insurance premiums, life and group insurance premiums, and payouts for vacation and sick leave.
  • Obfuscation: Some cities sent us a copy of the city manager’s entire contract, but would not provide specific dollar amounts.  Several cities simply gave us percentages, but not the real dollar amount for CalPers, Medicare contributions, life insurance premiums or deferred compensation. It was nearly impossible to figure out what cities were paying for city manager health insurance. For example, whether the plan covered just the city manager or his entire family. Some staffers got irritated that we wanted that information.
  • Run-Around: We got the run around from the city clerk, human resources or accounting, and the city attorney.
  • Denial: Some cities said the city manager’s contract was confidential and that the public did not have a right to this information. Even today, Orange County’s division of the League of Cities have declined to answer public records act requests regarding their meeting with Doti. The SOCAL League is a taxpayer funded organization.

We made four recommendations to the California State Assembly Joint Legislative Audit and Local Government committees at a special session on local government compensation and transparency in Sacramento, California this week.

  1. Tougher Transparency Laws-Groups such as the California League of Cities and state officials say they want transparency, but the reality is that they do not walk the talk. We need tougher transparency legislation. Citizens should be able to ask, “How much is the City manager’s total compensation” and be able to get a direct answer in a timely manner.
  1. Need for Uniform Benefit Reporting Standards

One of the reasons that it was so difficult to get information regarding benefits is because there is no uniform standard for reporting them.  Our data was widely criticized for comparing “Apples and Oranges.”  However, the League hit the same wall, which is why they stuck with just the IRS figures. This is a consistent and reliable figure, but it does not fully capture city manager total compensation.

  1. Need for Data Archive

Data is not information. While many cities are now posting salaries on their web sites, these numbers do not mean much unless they can be compared to other cities with similar demographics or other characteristics cities find useful (for example, number of city employees or median income of residents.) .  To do this, we need an unbiased, independent searchable data archive.

  1. Accountability

Finally, voters need to hold elected officials accountable for their spending priorities. Later on we discovered that some cities didn’t disclose that they provided city managers forgivable housing loans and that one city manager was holding two jobs. We also found that some could use sick time and vacation days to “spike” their pensions.  To us it appeared that some city managers were “gamming” the system, and that some elected officials were letting them get away with it. At the same, they were authorizing cuts in city services.   Now that the information is out there,  citizens should hold public officials accountable.  Otherwise, “baby bells” are inevitable.

Cindy Smith and Janice Voshall are students in Brandman University’s Masters in Public Administration program. They served as interns on Barbara Kogerman’s campaign for Laguna Hills City Council. They collected the data on city manager compensation for the Orange County City Managers report.