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Chartering Towards Destruction: The Real Cause of the Scandals in Bell and Vernon

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The ire over the scandal-ridden cities of Bell and Vernon rages on. Residents of Bell are now circulating a petition to recall the entire city council. The public, increasingly outraged and disillusioned, is asking how its officials got away with giving themselves exorbitant salaries, top notch medical insurance, hefty retirement plans, and high-paying consulting gigs. The answer, simply put, is Bell and Vernon are both charter cities.

In California there are two types of cities; general law cities, whose governing document is the state code and who are bound to follow state law on municipal issues, and charter cities, whose governing document is its own city charter and who have the freedom and authority to follow that charter on municipal issues. Nearly twenty percent of California's cities have voted to become charter cities.

The decision to become a charter city is a double-edged sword. Charter cities afford city officials, who know their cities best, the power to enact and tailor laws and policies to best serve a community's needs. Unfortunately, with greater discretion comes greater opportunity for abuse. In charter cities officials are free to set their own salaries, and that is exactly what officials did in Bell and Vernon, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Instead of serving their constituents interest, these unscrupulous officials opted to use this control and discretion to serve themselves by lining their own pockets.

The real tragedy of Bell and Vernon is that it leads to the erosion of the public's confidence in their elected officials. Approval ratings for public officials are at all time lows, and when officials start behaving badly, it hardly helps matters. An attrition of confidence can cause constituents to stop engaging in the political process all together.

Why does that matter? We live in a democracy, and a healthy democracy fundamentally depends on an engaged citizenry. The less we vote and engage in the process, the less our elected officials truly represent us.

So what can we do to ensure this doesn't happen again? One obvious way to try to address the problem of inflated salaries, and in general officials' abuse of discretion, is to increase disclosure. Information equals power. City residents should know how much those who seek to serve them are compensated for their jobs. Online disclosure, for those with internet access, is the fastest and easiest way of getting vital governmental information to the public. In addition, disclosure could deter at least some of this bad behavior. If officials know the public is watching, they may think twice before paying themselves large sums of money.

Residents could also require that city officials' salaries be limited in the city charter. Five years ago California passed a law limiting the pay of council members in general law cities. While that law cannot affect charter cities, city charters could include similar salary-limiting provisions.