Earlier this week, Lance Howland, one of PublicCEO’s writers, submitted a story about the City of Beaumont. The story discussed some allegations made by some of its residents regarding the cost and compensation of its contract employees.

In that story, their city manager, Alan Kapanicas, responded to the criticism by saying, “I think it’s a good learning experience… either we’ve done something wrong and we’ve got to fix it or we’ve got to explain what we did right.”

But when the research of two Brandman University graduate students was used to produce a report on the compensation packages of Orange County’s City Managers, they received a different kind of reaction.

The ensuing controversy hasn’t questioned the veracity of the information contained in the report, but the motives behind it. Some complained that it was inappropriate for Master of Public Administration students to receive credit or intern with a political campaign. Others protested the bias that a politically motivated report can have on data and results.

But it seems no one is recognizing the challenges that these two students overcame to produce a document that – regardless of the reason for its creation – could have a major impact on increasing transparency and accountability in California local government.

Barbara Kogerman, known as a stir-the-pot candidate for Laguna Hills City Council, first developed the concept for the report. She sought information regarding the compensation for Laguna Hills City Manager. But she soon realized that the city and county lacked a system that provided for easy access and comparison of compensation.

After spending her time starting the process, she solicited and received the help of interns from Brandman University, part of the Chapman University System. These two students, Janice Voshall and Cindy Smith, worked on compiling data on city manager compensation. The data was sometimes incomplete, vague, or delayed.

Realizing without context, numbers deliver very little information, the two also input constants into the report including population, employees, and city land area. The hope was that this information would allow cross-city comparisons.

Voshall and Smith spent the next four months sifting through stacks of public records requests, soliciting information, and compiling numbers. While they worked on this project, they each had formidable obstacles outside of their internship, too.

“I’m a single mother of five, working two jobs and going to school fulltime,” said Cindy Smith. “We’d go in two or three times a week, and spend a minimum of four hours each time.”

This internship was part of her plan to earn her Master’s degree and hopefully find a job. The experience served to teach her of the politics in local government, not participate in them.

“Even if they weren’t using [the research] for a campaign, we still would have done it. There’s nothing [politically] for us to gain,” said Smith. “It gave me a real understanding of the politics that are involved.”

Janice Voshall’s job as a waitress required her to work long hours outside of the internship, too. But she doesn’t regret taking the extra time to work as an intern. “I don’t regret the study. It was a real learning experience, dealing with the politics and handling the heat.”

When asked about what kind of heat they faced, Voshall simply replied, “It was pretty interesting for a while.” After a moment’s pause, she continued, “It’s funny that Cindy and I are being criticized for anything. All we did was gather the numbers and compile them into a readable format. That’s not having an opinion or saying things should be this way or that. It’s just gathering numbers and letting people see them in comparison.”

She has a point. Perhaps the focus ought to not be placed on the two students who did a remarkable job finding and compiling the information. Instead, I believe the focus should be on the questions that this report raises.

Can there is a nexus that justifies or explains the salaries? Is one city manager asked to handle responsibilities that another is not? If so, what are the values of these services? What would the implication to taxpayers be if those duties were delegated to other staff or contractors?

I challenge the cities to view this report not as an attack, but as a call to action. The scandal in Bell demonstrated the worst of what people can do when given too much power and too little oversight.  And in the wake of that scandal, I think it is important that everyone examine their own practice to make them more transparent, accountable, and responsible.

These two women overcame all the challenges and helped produced a groundbreaking study that will increase transparency in Orange County local government and may set a precedent for the state.

Voshall certainly doesn’t feel like she’s done yet. “I would eventually like to do more work in what our work on this report started,” she said. “And then, I’ll see what my future may hold.”

Cindy Smith also expressed an interest in continuing the work. “I would really like to work with the State Controller or State Auditor and come up with a general plan of how cities and counties will manage their salaries and benefits.”

“We go into public service because we want to help the public and we have a heart for serving,” said Smith.

She gets it.

Agree with their findings, disagree with their methods, but don’t ignore the spirit behind their work:

Increase Transparency. Increase Responsiveness. Increase Accountability.