By Anne Lowe
OPEN GOVERNMENT – State Senator Lou Correa told an October 20 legislative hearing on government transparency that he will introduce a bill that will make finding out local and state officials’ salaries easier.
The Senate Local Government Committee heard testimony from witnesses who described the sometimes-painful process of extracting public information from local governments, reports the Voice of OC.
The hearing and Correa's bill are reactions to the pay scandal in the city of Bell. In Bell, former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, a majority of the City Council and other officials are accused of looting the city coffers to pay themselves millions in hidden salaries and benefits.
During hours of testimony, witnesses told the committee about how difficult it can be for the public to get ordinary public information, in spite of strong, decade-old state laws that require government agencies to make such information readily available.
Even major newspapers sometimes have to use lawyers to force public agencies to comply with the law, said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The goal, he said, should be the ability of Californians to say "public pay is the public's business."
Following the Bell scandal, many cities have begun posting their officials' pay and benefits information on their websites, although committee members noted some tuck the information deep inside where it is difficult to find.
Several bills that would have addressed various parts of the issue, including one by Correa, died in the last legislative session or were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In Orange County this month, Anaheim voted to substantially expand the amount of public information it provides online.
The city already posts the compensation paid to its officials, but additional information will include the conflict of interest statements that elected officials and department heads must file each year, minutes of the City Council and its boards and commissions, and proof that those who are required to take ethics training have completed the classes.
Following the Senate committee hearing, Correa said he wants his legislative colleagues to "seize the moment" in the aftermath of the Bell scandal and, when they convene next year, approve a comprehensive law that would include local officials, school districts and state officials.
"Transparency laws have to apply to everybody," he said.
He said he's heard from private citizens and elected leaders, including some who testified today, about the difficulty they've had obtaining information.
Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, told the committee it's important to make sure all forms of compensation are made public.
He said that in the past, Orange County officials have received car allowances that allowed them to lease a Mercedes-Benz or a BMW. He said officials driving luxury cars have showed up to meetings to announce that employees making far less were being laid off.
Fred Smoller, director of the Public Administration program at Brandman University at Chapman University, said it took two interns 100 hours and four months to get public information from Orange County's 34 cities on how much compensation their city managers earned.
He urged lawmakers to adopt a statewide reporting system that would include population and other demographic information so that the public could compare pay and benefits in cities of similar size.
Correa said after the meeting that population comparisons are an important part of making the pay information easily available so that members of the public can decide "is this normal or not normal."