City managers, city attorneys, and public safety officials – who are often the highest paid officials in a city – faced the greatest backlash of anger. Their commitment to public service was quickly overlooked by a watchdog groups scrounging for the newest scandal, the latest Bell.
Almost immediately after the scandal broke, State Controller John Chiang ordered his office to begin assembling payroll information for all of California’s cities. It was the first step in creating a massive database, which eventually will include all of the state’s city, county, and special district employees.
Ironically though, Mr. Chiang was able to find the man power and technology resources to produce a database of 700,000 salaries just months after declaring his systems too antiquated and his staff too overworked to reduce state employee pay to minimum wage. But after weeks of work, the first edition of the database was unveiled in October.
The idea was to create an easily accessible database, where any citizen could review what their city’s employees earn. Transparency is always best sold as a tool to root out corruption and waste.
Instead, the website has proved to be the silent vindication of both public employees and local governments.
The database and website have been operating for months now, and there haven’t been any further revelations of fraud and scandal. There hasn’t been another so-called “Mini-Bell.”
What we have discovered by publishing 600,000 peoples’ salaries are that these people are earning exactly what they should. And in most cases, they are earning as much (or as little) as we expected.
Sure, some people may have questioned a salary here or there, but even if 500 salaries received extra scrutiny, that’s about one in twelve hundred. Just because occasional questions can be raised doesn’t make their pay rate wrong. But it is important that people have the chance to ask, and the right to have them answered. The answers offered seem to placate residents’ concerns and resolve the issues.
In the end, this database proves that California’s local governments are doing right by their residents. Unfortunately, the database doesn’t always do right by the employees.
The State Controller wanted to build the database around absolute compensation. That is, he wanted to know what the total value of all of the money going to a single employee was.
The question that Mr. Chiang’s office asked to have answered is based upon a dollar figure written in one box of an employee’s tax filing from the previous year. That number, regardless of other factors is the salary that is reported.
In situations where an official spiked their salary with paid time off or sick leave before retiring, that inflated number is reported as the salary for the position.
I’ve read a few stories about inaccurate data contained in the database. For Pomona’s Public Works Director, his pay is over-reported by more than $100,000. The database offers the public ease of access, but offers the employee no easy avenue for correction.
Perhaps Mr. Chiang couldn’t afford the manpower for accuracy, corrective action, or verification.
While the database isn’t perfect, it is up. Next year, when it comes time to update the information, perhaps the system will be a bit more responsive and accurate.
Until then, however, everyday it remains published and accessible. There continues to be a reassuring silence as no shocking revelations about fraud, waste, or scandal in local government are revealed. So I suppose that everyday is another small victory for the thousands of public servants who help California and its cities operate.
Unlike Robert Rizzo and his cronies from Bell, there aren’t repeat headlines or front page stories about how so many people are doing right. Instead, the men and women who were eyed suspiciously earlier this year must enjoy the silent affirmation of their value.
Perhaps that peace and quiet is the bonus that Californians are offering at the start of the New Year.