September 7, 2010 > Editorial: Compensation
Recent news of excessive compensation for city employees and councilmembers in Bell, California is a wakeup call for all citizens but not necessarily cause for angry revolts in every city. Reports of extremes should lead to self-examination but caution toward overreaction. An example of local response to economic hard times can be seen as Union City pulls together to balance their budget. Compensation rollbacks and the switch to a two-tier retirement system for non-sworn employees are an admission that current pay and retirement benefits are unsustainable and unrealistic.
Other cities have taken some of the same steps and are examining similar options... they should quickly follow suit. Fremont is currently preparing for negotiations with its employee bargaining units. Close review of salaries, benefits, including retirement guarantees, is not only prudent but critical. Salaries and benefits are open to public scrutiny and must be defensible. Some department presentations made to councilmembers (and the public) of accomplishments and future goals are vague, insubstantial and devoid of concrete proposals and deadlines. Those receiving such reports must be vigilant and demanding. With the unemployment rate at extremely high levels, a municipal mantra that glorifies endless process over measurable product is not acceptable... the public is not in a forgiving mood.
Community benefits derived from public service are often understated, but blatant mismanagement and excess will result in lost public confidence and wholesale change. Such change can often cause significant damage to municipal infrastructure without associated benefits. Assessing public office candidates for a balance between knowledge, administrative expertise, vision and leadership is often difficult, but that is what should govern action at the polls. Simply voting based on party affiliation, name recognition or any other superficial qualities is not enough these days. Tough decisions need to be made and those brave enough to enter the fray should face the challenges with direct answers. Political rhetoric is unacceptable without concrete proposals for action.
State politics are an extreme example of inefficiency, resulting in reactionary governance and disastrous results. The budget, usually settled well after legally imposed deadlines, is simply a maze of smoke and mirrors. As each new administration and state office candidate solemnly promises significant change, they are routinely stymied by the same entrenched cast of characters who enter politics with ideals and leave with little resolved but a fat bank account. Instead of action, the same old faces are recycled and rewarded. As a consequence of this political charade, little changes occur beyond municipal levels. Unfortunately, the same scenario, with a few notable exceptions, is promised for the November election. The real action and change can occur where 'the rubber meets the road' in municipal contests.
The saying "pound wise and penny foolish" should provide a bit of guidance in this year's electoral process. Where excess exists and fat can be trimmed, it should be. However, the tendency to blame all politicians and tax measures for an economic collapse is irresponsible. Careful consideration of local tax measures is not only wise, but can be a step toward local control. As the State of California wallows in its financial mess, municipalities can wrest some control from state coffers by shifting funds to local government. Once this is done, the public can, and should, tighten the fiscal noose around the state by demanding accountability and less state tax.
Too much State and Federal funding has been mandated, restricting funds and creating a plethora of unintended consequences. It may be time to challenge local officials with local funds to make local government work. Without an excuse that 'the State made me do it,' fiscal accountability becomes a direct path between citizens and their government. With this directive from voters and ultimate responsibility for financial decisions, there is little room for politicians to hide. Our schools and local government deserve a chance to perform at their best. If, however, the opportunity is wasted, reaction should be swift and decisive. Frugality and good faith gestures by local government are a signal to voters. Let's respond in kind.