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Ron Carlee Headshot

Thank You, LA Times

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By now anyone who reads this blog is familiar with the case of Bell, California, a suburb of Los Angeles: a city of 2.64 square miles, with a population of less than 40,000 that is 90% Latino and has a median household income of $30,0000 to $40,000. It is a city with pride and challenges like many throughout the LA area and across the country.

Sadly, what distinguishes Bell today is a group of appointed and elected officials who have showcased the city nationally by their record of hubris, greed, collusion, total lack of ethical standards, and self-aggrandizement at the expense of their constituents.

The elected and key appointed officials in Bell failed their city, tarnishing its image and losing the single most important thing that all elected and appointed officials are obligated to uphold: public trust.

The level of disillusionment and anger expressed by Bell's residents can be seen clearly in the video news reports by KTLA. The city administrator, assistant administrator, and police chief have been forced from office. The mayor and two city council members reportedly have announced that they will not run for re-election; nonetheless, citizens are calling for their resignations and have started a recall effort. Council members are also under investigation by the L.A. County District Attorney and California Attorney General.

The source of the turmoil in Bell is well known. The council members and three top appointed officials were plundering the city coffers by receiving salaries that were obscene: city administrator $788K; assistant administrator $376K; police chief $457K. The city council members themselves had found a way to increase their own part-time, base salaries from $1,800 (yes, per year!) to $97K. The scheme through which the council members inflated their salaries is dramatically illustrated by an interactive tool on the LA Times web site.

When I first saw these numbers, I didn't think that they could possibly be accurate. I've worked in local government and have followed salaries for over 30 years. I was manager for a much larger and much wealthier community than Bell, and I was very well paid at one-third the salary. Arguably one of the hardest jobs in local government management is the appointed position of chief executive for LA County itself, with a population of 10 million, geographical area of 4,000 square miles, budget of $26 billion, and over 100,000 employees. The current incumbent makes $338K, according to the LA Times. You could make a credible argument that he should be paid more, but $788K is not even remotely reasonable for the head of LA County.

So how did the poor people of the City of Bell end up paying their assistant city administrator more than the LA County chief executive? Hubris and greed. The egregious nature of these officials was captured in their initial response to exposure. The city administrator was quoted in the LA Times as saying about his excessive salary, "If that's a number people choke on, maybe I'm in the wrong business...I could go into private business and make that money. This council has compensated me for the job I've done."

We've heard so many reports of excessive private sector pay that we're almost numb to them at this point, especially the inexplicable severance packages for private executives who destroy companies with their incompetence. Even Tony Hayward of BP gets $1.6 million in severance and another company job! How is anyone entitled to any money after a $32 billion mistake occurred on your watch, and you personally exacerbated the damage from that mistake in every move you made and every word you uttered?

Just because this lack of stewardship is common in the private sector does not make it acceptable in the public arena. We should accept and be held to a higher standard of ethics, accountability, and stewardship. The actions by the Bell officials may be good enough for the private sector--where they apparently thought they should be--but their conduct was totally unacceptable and inexcusable in the public sector.

This indictment applies equally to the elected officials, who still do not get it. Even after the mayor and council dismissed the appointed officials in an attempt to save themselves politically, they said in a press release that they "continue to believe that the Times' coverage and contrived uproar the Times sought to provoke are unfair and unwarranted." The press release went on to say the following:

Unlike the skewed view of the facts the Los Angeles Times presented to advance the paper's own agenda, a look at the big picture of city compensation shows that salaries of the City Manager and other top city staff have been in line with similar positions over the period of their tenure. A full, fair reporting of the facts would also have demonstrated that CAO Rizzo delivered Bell from a $20 million shortfall to 15 years of balanced budgets. In addition, the city transformed from one of struggling to maintain its day-to-day operations to a City that is a model for financial prudence and effective service delivery. As the LA Times reported in 1993, Mr. Rizzo began his career at Bell as the lowest paid city manager in the county and over the course of his long career at Bell has averaged approximately $260,000.00 in annual salary. CAO Rizzo leaves Bell in a far better position than he found it 17 years ago.

A city full of disillusioned, angry residents is not a winning legacy. Providing effective services and a balanced budget are in fact the minimum standards of professional local government management. As for transforming the city, the income of its residents is 35% less than the state overall ($39K v. $61K) and only 48 households in Bell earn $200K or higher (source: city-data.com).

Outside of the residents of Bell, the people most outraged over the events there are professional city managers, especially those in California. As one assistant city manager in California wrote in an email, "I have heard nothing but dismay, disgust, outrage, and embarrassment, especially from California managers...now more than ever the promotion of our profession's ethics is critical." Toward this end, managers in California are now collecting salary data from city managers in the state that they will make public. They are also developing guidelines for city councils to use in establishing pay.

We should not expect public officials to take vows of poverty and agree to work for nothing. Professional, full-time, highly educated and trained professionals should be compensated fairly. And determining what is fair is really not that hard, especially in the greater LA area where there are numerous local governments that create actual market data against which Bell and other communities can benchmark salaries for executives to entry-level workers. Local governments do this sensibly and transparently all the time.

The important lesson from Bell is that we cannot take stewardship and good sense for granted. Bad people will always do bad things, institutionally and as individual professionals. However, we must continuously stress the importance of ethical behavior along with disclosure and oversight.

The only good news from Bell is that the truth was exposed, a little late, but nonetheless exposed. As a result, three people who violated the public trust were gone in short order, and it is likely that the complicit elected officials will not be far behind in their departure.

The credit for exposure goes to the LA Times and its reporters Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives. Their work serves as a reminder of how important newspapers and professional journalists remain. Over the past several years we have seen a steady decline in their ranks. Cutbacks at the LA Times have been legendary over the past decade. In my region, The Washington Post has cut its local coverage outside of the central city of Washington D.C. to almost nothing. Smaller markets with much weaker newspapers than the Post and Times are desperate for the credible, professional, factual, and mostly objective oversight that a free press provides.

As public officials, we have all had our issues with the press, especially when reporting is superficial and slanted. Truthfully, however, as a society we critically need the press. And, public officials who care about honesty also critically need the press, too. The only thing worse than having the press look over your shoulder all the time is not having the press looking over any shoulders any of the time. Unfortunately, professional journalism is an institution at significant risk. How long would it have taken for the truth to be exposed in Bell without Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives. To these reporters all owe a big "thank you!"