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Law keeps pay in check

Scandal rocks city south of L.A., but local officials’ salaries regulated

Posted: July 27, 2010 8:31 p.m.
Updated: July 28, 2010 4:30 a.m.

The graph above shows Santa Clarita top officials’ pay in comparison with leaders from similarly sized cities and the former pay scale of Bell officials, who recently reduced their wages by 90 percent in light of a recent controversy. SOURCES: Los Angeles County, AP Wire, city records of Burbank, Lancaster, Pasadena, Santa Clarita and Glendale.

Recent headlines about the exorbitant pay rates of top officials in a small, working-class city southeast of Los Angeles have Santa Clarita leaders pointing out that something similar couldn’t — and wouldn’t — happen here.

The salaries of Santa Clarita City Council members and City Manager Ken Pulskamp are in step with similarly-sized cities in Los Angeles County. The five council members each bring home $18,860 each year for their part-time service. Pulskamp earns $241,633.

A few towns south, four of five Bell City Council members raked in $100,000 salaries. The city manager for the 39,000-population city made $787,637, far and away the highest compensation for the post statewide.

Bell’s City Council voted Monday night to reduce their salaries by 90 percent, bringing their pay rate in line with other cities in the county and state. Last week, Bell’s top three employees — its city manager, assistant city manager and police chief — announced they would resign. Combined, the three made $1.6 million a year.

Santa Clarita’s leaders say the Bell situation is an anomaly.

Pulskamp leads the reform
Pulskamp will meet with the League of California Cities’ City Managers Department on Thursday to discuss ways of keeping city-management pay reasonable. Pulskamp serves as the department’s president.

“Some city managers are paid more or less than others. But with maybe two exceptions, all are in the same ballpark,” Pulskamp said. “And then there’s Bell, which was completely out of left field.”

Bell’s pay rates “disappointed and outraged” public servants statewide, Pulskamp said. The city managers’ association will discuss composing a list of guidelines for city councils to follow.

“Ultimately, it is their decision,” Pulskamp said. “But at least there would be some guidelines. See, what we don’t want to do is tell councils what to do because there are too many variables. It’s not easy to link to size of city or the number of employees, because (different city managers) have different duties and responsibilities. And that’s fine, as long as you’re talking about salaries in the same range.”

Bell’s salaries, which were up to four or five times the rate of other cities, were “a violation of the public trust,” Pulskamp said.

Charter vs. general-law
Bell is a charter city, which means it is allowed by the California Constitution more control of its destiny. In charter cities, some local laws trump state ones, allowing the cities to “chart” their own courses on elections, running departments and compensation for committees.

In Bell, the council hiked up compensation for agencies like the Planning Commission and the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, and then appointed themselves to posts there. Most of their $100,000 compensation is for serving on ancillary committees.

General-law cities, on the other hand, are bound by state laws. Santa Clarita is the largest general-law city in Los Angeles County.

So per state code, when Santa Clarita City Council members vote to give themselves a raise, they can only take a raise of 5 percent per year. And Santa Clarita’s council earns a flat fee that covers all their city duties.

Similar-sized cities in the county like Pasadena, Lancaster and Glendale are charter cities. Pasadena City Council members earn $16,411 while their mayor earns $24,615 — regardless of how many other agency meetings they attend.

Lancaster’s City Council earns $7,560 each year, which includes a monthly $600 stipend plus $30 for each redevelopment-agency meeting they attend. The agency meets about once a month, a city spokeswoman said.

Council reacts
The Santa Clarita City Council keeps Pulskamp’s salary in check by comparing his salary to other city managers in Southern California. His last raise was in January 2009, when all Santa Clarita employees got a 2-percent boost.

State law keeps Santa Clarita City Council’s pay in check, they said.

“What’s going on in (the city of) Bell is just wrong,” Councilman Frank Ferry said. “It’s something that should have been prevented, and something we would not allow in Santa Clarita.”

Local City Council members said that in Santa Clarita, like in most cities, taxpayers are getting a bargain.

“If you figure out what we get paid and the hours that we put in, for me, it’s probably 25 cents an hour,” Councilwoman Marsha McLean said.

Council members pointed out that they did not vote to give themselves a raise this year because of the economy.

“It was a quick 5-0 vote,” Ferry said. “It was one of those things where you’re in an economy, we’re on a hiring freeze and asking employees not to take an increase. It just seemed like a respect issue.”

Ferry said he pays his stipend forward, using his council pay to attend local functions and donate to local charities.

Ferry said that with his skill set, educational background and experience he could be making ten times his council salary in the private sector.

“That’s just not what I choose to do,” Ferry said.

McLean, too, said it’s not about the money for her.

“I feel like I’m making a difference, so the pay is not even a consideration,” she said. “I’m doing what I want to do.
Whatever compensation I get helps.”

Councilman Bob Kellar said he didn’t sign up for the post for its pay.

“This is a darn demanding job for the couple of pennies we get,” he said. “And I’m not crying. I didn’t sign up for it for the money. But I don’t feel like I’m stealing anything from anybody, I’ll tell you that.”

What’s happening in Bell is “absolutely shocking,” Kellar said.

“As far as I’m concerned,” the former Los Angeles police officer said, “they ought to be thrown in jail.”



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