City of Bell and the Case for Grassroots Transparency
I’m proud to present this independent research project by our summer intern Mike Liu. Mike looked at his home state of California, the recent Bell salary scandal and the need for transparency at a local level. – Nicko Margolies
When I first heard about the exorbitant salaries of top officials in Bell, California, my initial thoughts concerned college, not politics.
Last year I participated in student government as a freshman Senate mentee, working closely with student Senators in order to better understand university governance.
Though I obtained firsthand insight into effecting change on campus, many mentees and I left incredibly disillusioned by the lack of transparency and accountability in student government.
Both new and experienced Senators missed mandatory meetings on a whim. Furthermore, attendance at Senate committee meetings was painfully sparse: Senators often found themselves struggling to establish quorum, even when student organizations’ budgets were on the line. This was particularly troubling, considering Senator salaries (compensation many students didn’t even know about) were based on nominal committee leadership and participation.
After a controversial and unproductive year, a new batch of Senators were elected and sworn in, leaving many unaddressed problems destined for repetition.
Reading the LA Times investigation, I couldn’t believe the striking similarities between the Bell fiasco and what I had seen on campus.
The Bell scandal
In the relatively small, low-income town of Bell, City Council members’ inflated salaries were safely hidden from the public eye. Year after year, Bell Councilmen received over $7,800 per month for sitting on boards of various agencies including the Community Housing Authority, the Surplus Property Authority, and, ironically, the Public Financing Authority.
What’s worse, as the LA Times reported in July, these boards did close to nothing, holding meetings that sometimes lasted for as little as a single minute.
These same Councilmen were also responsible for the more infuriating and heavily publicized part of the Bell story – the extraordinarily bloated salaries of Bell’s top officials, including former city manager Robert Rizzo’s $1.5 million annual compensation.
Though the corruption displayed in the Bell scandal is of an obviously different magnitude than the carelessness of the student Senate, they are both pieces of a far-reaching set of problems. Fueled by a lack of transparency and citizen participation, unaccountable leaders were given extra room to behave in an opaque and irresponsible manner.
In the case of Bell, corrupt officials went unchecked and unnoticed as they pocketed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of taxpayer dollars.
Small steps forward
As much as we’d like there to be a quick fix solution or a panacea for local corruption woes, there simply isn’t one. While detailed investigations, voluntary salary cuts, and a slew of resignations are necessary first steps, they have relatively few implications for the long term.
Outrage centered on bloated public officials is justified, but turning that energy into permanent solutions is the crucial next step.
Public equals online: salary edition
Last week, California State Controller John Chiang announced that cities would be required to disclose salary information online. This was a great step for local transparency in California, and having the state encourage financial disclosure at local levels is a promising sign.
However, it is ultimately up to individual cities to make sure that the data they are disclosing is both understandable and comprehensive.
Published data should include basic annual salary information as well as a detailed breakdown of benefits packages and other perks. An independent 2010 report [pdf] by Laguna Hills City Council Candidate Barbara Kogerman lists “obscure compensation factors,” which add to compensations while slipping past disclosure requirements. These benefits include “management incentives, deferred compensation, contributions to private retirement programs, insurance premiums […] auto expenses, moving expenses, payouts for unused sick or vacation leave […]” and others. Although some of these compensations are included in the annual salary, many are taken into account after retirement, effectively increasing pensions without being reflected in general salary reports.
Employment contracts for officials should also be posted in an easily accessible database and updated to reflect salary-boosting addendums and any other modifications as soon as they are implemented.
A useful, meaningful online record of city salary information will include a searchable, itemized, and consistently updated database of compensation factors available for public review.
A great example can be found at the Missouri Accountability Portal. As the Sunlight Reporting Group explained last week, the website is entirely automated, and salary information is updated in real time. In addition, contracts are displayed in detail and are fully searchable. Sites like this could be scaled down and used to keep track of local expenditures. In fact, counties could establish their own “accountability portals” so that each city has a consistent, useable framework for disclosing important data.
For more insight into local transparency, I turned to professor Raphe Sonenshein, political science chair at California State University, Fullerton. He informed me that California has a relatively expansive set of protections for transparency under state law. Although “local governments are absolutely required to comply […] what happens when they don’t?” asked Sonenshein. “That’s the Bell Case.”
Although Bell pushed the limits of non-transparency, their actions also illustrate the potential problems with California’s existing disclosure policies. Let’s look at how Bell dealt with two of California’s longest-standing pieces of transparency legislation: the Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The disclosure debacle
An LA Times article last week revealed that Bell withheld public records requests beyond “the time limit set by the state Public Records Act” without explanation.
Sonenshein experienced similar roadblocks when he tried to obtain a copy of the city charter. “The person who answered the phone said she’d be happy to fax me an application for a public records request,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
It’s ridiculous that citizens would have to jump through hoops to obtain records as basic as salary summaries during a salary scandal or the city charter of a charter city.
Bell City Council members similarly disregarded the Brown Act as they held secret meetings in the wake of the scandal. The extent to which private deliberations concerning salaries took place in the past remains unknown.
It was also through a discreet loophole that Bell City Council members inflated their salaries in the first place. A “little-noticed city ballot measure” to convert Bell to a charter city was approved during a special election. There was no real mention of the exemptions from salary regulations that such a change would cause.
The measure passed, receiving a total of less than 400 votes.
The Bell scandal reinforces the argument that California’s existing transparency laws don’t do enough on their own. Enforcement simply does not exist, and though most cities follow the rules, we know from this experience that relying merely on integrity is not enough.
A proactive commitment
Accountability is not simply releasing information in bulk. It’s also not passing nominal, unenforced legislation.
What real accountability requires is an active, honest effort from citizens and leaders. Steven Croley, a law professor at the University of Michigan, and new member of the Obama administration’s Domestic Policy Council, wrote a blog post in 2007 that is relevant in this discussion:
“Government is open not just because it discloses information about what it has already done, but because it solicits citizens’ input about what it is doing.”
While Croley is describing his vision for an open federal government, the same principle applies, perhaps even more appropriately, to local government. With everything more centralized and smaller-scale, maintaining a transparent system faces fewer challenges than anything on a state or national level.
Take the example of the special ballot measure that allowed Bell Council members to eliminate their salary caps. It’s undeniable that the public was left in the dark. Instead, though the use of town hall meetings and online outreach, changes to city legislature and policy should have been posted and discussed before a final vote went through.
In his post, Croley stated that federal agencies should adopt the attitude of “[telling] you before you ask” over “we’ll tell you if you ask.” This idea will certainly be at the center of a successful transparency movement.
Right now, local officials have an invaluable opportunity to be proactive instead of passive. A relevant solution to the inconsistency of the Public Records Act, for example, might be to establish a database where documents are uploaded and made public for future reference as they are requested. This system would create easy access to the most pertinent records while slowly establishing a comprehensive, accessible database free from red tape.
While it is the responsibility of government to operate transparently and with integrity, the impact of citizen engagement should not be understated. Within weeks after the Bell scandal broke, citizens banded together and effectively forced the resignation of its corrupt city officials.
But it shouldn’t take a looming scandal to start an accountability movement.
Citizen engagement has great potential to effect change, and for most people, local government might just be the most accessible place to take action.
One model example of a transparency movement is Illinois’ Local Transparency Project, which combines the expertise of the Illinois Policy Institute with local leaders fighting government opacity. The Local Transparency Project is an encouraging example of a successful grassroots effort and a great resource for citizen activists looking to organize and mobilize.
In addition, the Sunlight Foundation offers fantastic resources and a strong community for transparency advocates. A solid first step would be to join the Public=Online campaign as well as the Citizens for Open Government group. Sunlight is also producing a guide on how to do state level organizing and advocacy around transparency. Bring your community and concerns to the conversation.
Local government operates closest to the people, but it rarely receives the same attention enjoyed by the state or federal levels.
The Bell scandal proves, however, that though City Councils will never enjoy the celebrity of White House officials or pass billion-dollar legislation, corruption at home can still bear enormous consequences.
If we implement permanent transparency solutions at a local level, we’ll be on our way to a truly open government.
A downloadable chart of Bell City official salaries can be found here [bellcityclerk website pdf]
A huge thank you to the Los Angeles Times and its reporters for breaking the Bell story and shedding much needed light on local governance in California.