“Californians were offered instant access to salary information in their own communities when I launched the first public payroll site of city and county compensation last fall,” said State Controller John Chiang in a press release. “Posting this information allows California residents to see where their public dollars are being spent and to better hold their local agencies accountable.”
With more than 2,000 special districts, the State Controller’s office had to request the information in phases. According to Jacob Roper, the spokesman for the State Controller’s Office, the first phase included 866 special districts.
“This [was] a lot of information to be requested,” said Kyle Packman, the Legislative Director for the California Special Districts Association. “They were asked to do this with very little notice.”
But the CSDA worked with its members and the Controller’s office to boost compliance.
“When the Controller’s office started with group one, they were going off their experiences with counties and cities,” said Iris Hererra, Legislative Advocate for the CDSA.
But special districts have different challenges. For instance, many districts are operated entirely by volunteers and people wondered how that could be reported.
Soon, they received numerous questions from its members about how to comply fully.
“We worked closely with the Controller’s office to develop special instructions,” Hererra continued. They then distributed those instructions to their members. As a result of their efforts, more than 95% of CDSA’s members complied.
While compliance rates were high, it was not universal. Approximately 20% of the state’s special districts included in phase one either failed to file their paperwork correctly or didn’t file it at all.
Despite the database lacking some districts’ information, the new database is an impressive attempt at transparency. Across the state, 693 special districts reported nearly $3 billion in annual compensation for their 59,947 employees.
While that may strike some as excessive, many of these districts operate with entirely volunteer staffs, while others – like Los Angeles County Metro Transit Authority – have a paid staff of more than 13,000. And all districts deliver specialized, localized services.
“There is a value in local control and local services,” said Packman. “Special Districts are an example of that. They are a means to provide specialized services in areas that have particular needs. They deliver that service in a focused and locally sensitive way.”
The example for how special districts can address local needs can be found in rural areas.
For example, 108 special districts service the needs of Tulare’s 440,000 residents. That’s one special district for every 4,000 residents. But when people live in an unincorporated area far from the county seat, a special district is an effective means to control local affairs with a responsive voice.
In Tulare, or any other area that lacks a strong connection or relationship with a larger government, there will continue to be a governmental vacuum that special districts effectively fill.
That means that the reporting that started this year will also become a standard practice in the future.
“We look forward to ensuring that next year it will be an even bigger success to providing transparency to the public,” said Packman.
If special districts serving a thousand residents can and should be subjected to this sort of oversight, why shouldn’t all governments?
After all, taxpayer dollars are taxpayer dollars.
If the State Controller is already committing resources to gather and publish the information, why shouldn’t they subject all government agencies and employees to the same level of accountability and transparency?
Using the same rationale that started these databases, doesn’t the public have the same interest in seeing the compensation for all people in state service? When will the State Controller’s office have their financial information disclosed? What about teachers, firemen, or highway patrol officers?
When will the reporting requirements expand?
I’ve seen the Senate compensation report. When it’s compared to the information that’s required from so many other agencies at ‘lower’ levels of government, it seems not only unfair, but also hypocritical.
If local government should be so thoroughly investigated, why shouldn’t the state? Special districts have a combined payroll of $3 billion. The state’s payroll is worth more than $7 billion.
Shouldn’t they all be held to the same standard?