Our View: Grand jury swings, misses with city manager pay probe

Our View
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If there’s one thing residents have been vocal about during the recession, it’s that state, county and local governments must rein in pay for public employees — especially top executives. You wouldn’t know that from reading the just-released final report from the Placer County Grand Jury. In an investigation titled “The Delicate Art of Setting Salaries,” the grand jury focused on the salaries and compensation for city and town managers. But rather than offer a set of recommendations to build better pay models, the probe simply reports facts and figures. Report findings state the obvious. Or worse, state what’s been painfully obvious to taxpayers — top execs in some cities are paid well above the national average — without offering strong medicine for a change. Ask anyone on Main Street whether the Rocklin City Council should be commended for paying retiring manager Carlos Urrutia $139,000 to work part time while collecting $170,000 in pension pay, and you’re likely to get an earful. Ask anyone whether Craig Robinson should have received nearly $400,000 when he was fired as city manager in Roseville, and you’ll get a quizzical look, a belly laugh and a “you’re kidding” response. In its report, the grand jury acknowledged media attention to Roseville’s firing of Robinson and his contract buyout as the spark. A complaint followed “which led to a broader investigation of how municipalities established compensation levels for their senior executives,” the report says. The jury wanted to determine whether local salaries were competitive and “assess if compensation and benefit packages had been renegotiated to reduce … salaries commensurate with reductions their staffs had faced,” the report states. Local city exec pay is not competitive. It is inflated, and the report findings say so. In a nationwide survey, only one local manager — in Colfax — falls in the first quartile of compensation while “the previous managers of Rocklin and Roseville would be off the chart,” the report says. And in comparisons to per-resident averages or salary as a percentage of budget, Placer managers are compensated handsomely. “Placer cities and town managers are paid more per employee they manage than their Bay Area counterparts,” the jury’s findings state, “even though the Bay Area municipalities budget more per employee.” In other words, in every statistical measure the jury used, Placer administrators are compensated generously. Based on these findings, one might expect the jury’s conclusions and recommendations to include salary caps, defined pay ranges, salary equity with Bay Area managers on population or budget metrics, but that’s not what residents got. “City Councils of Placer County and their city managers are to be commended for renegotiating reductions of the contracted salaries and benefits to match the realities of the current economic environment,” the jury offered in its conclusion. The jury swung, and the jury missed. This isn’t meant to question the hard work and dedication of the 19 jurists. They volunteered a year of their life. Their service isn’t in question, but what must be questioned are their watered-down, lacking-in-common-sense findings. Some portions of the report appear solid. Jurists took on the county supervisors’ revenue-sharing program, making recommendations to make the process transparent and open to public evaluation. And they took a firm line in finding security flaws at the Lincoln Police Department and serious structural problems with the county Sheriff’s Department’s substation in North Lake Tahoe, recommending immediate replacement of the decaying, 50-year-old station at Burton Creek. But this report could have been much more, not only with the salary study but with other hot-button topics. Where’s the inquiry into the Michelle Ollar-Burris lot-split investigation, which has yielded little but cost the county a reported $180,000 so far, not including considerable staff time? Or the county’s solar power array near DeWitt Center? Or the $50,000 bonus and subsequent buyout of the Colfax schools superintendent? Or the 49 Fire investigation, now 10 full months after the catastrophic blaze. The grand jury should be taking a critical look at these issues in 2010-11. In the meantime, city councils across the county shouldn’t look at the jury report as a commendation, but another milestone on the way to restoring fiscal sanity for executive pay.