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San Diego Cities' Salaries, Benefits Scrutinized

San Diego Cities' Salaries, Benefits Scrutinized
Since the Los Angeles Times revealed the extremely high salaries and benefits the small, working-class Southern California charter city of Bell paid their city manager and council members, scrutiny has fallen on what other cities pay their public employees. We look at the results of a KPBS survey of cities in San Diego County as well as the trend toward charter cities.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Do you know how much the President of the United States is paid? Well, it's only half as much as the former City Manager of Bell, California.

What Are Your City Leaders Making?

Find out what the officials of San Diego County's 18 cities are being paid.

The outrage over the hundreds of thousands of dollars that taxpayers in Bell have been unwittingly paying their city officials has gotten national attention, and our attention here at KPBS. Our reporters decided to investigate what city officials around San Diego County were making and we've posted it on our website. And we also looked into the varying city rules and traditions that go into setting those salaries. I’d like to welcome my guests. Alison St John is senior metro reporter for KPBS. And, Alison, good morning.

ALISON ST JOHN (Senior Metro Reporter, KPBS): Good morning, Maureen.


CAVANAUGH: Jessica Levinson is director of Political Reform at the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. Good morning, Jessica.

JESSICA LEVINSON (Director, Political Reform, Center For Governmental Studies): Good morning. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Douglas Johnson is a fellow of the Rose Institute of Claremont McKenna College, researching California government and politics. Douglas, welcome to These Days.

DOUGLAS JOHNSON (Fellow, Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What do you think is a fair salary for the people who run your city government? How should that amount be determined? Give us a call with your questions, your comments. The number here is 1-888-895-5727. Alison, remind us of the details of the salary scandal in the City of Bell in LA County.


ST JOHN: So the highest paid person was the city manager who was pulling down almost $800,000 a year, which, as you mentioned, is twice what the president earns. Then, it turned out, the police chief was up in the $400,000 range, and the elected officials were all pulling in around $100,000 each when you included all their perks.

CAVANAUGH: So how did this situation happen? How did the citizens of Bell wind up paying their city officials so much money?

ST JOHN: Without realizing it, we have to say.


ST JOHN: It turns out that Bell had become a charter city and just a matter of a few hundred out of the 37,000 people who lived in Bell had participated in the election and voted for that charter city without realizing quite what the implications were. And there are many implications of becoming a charter city. There are some benefits and there’s a lot more power and authority that goes to the city council and the city itself. If you’re not a charter city, you’re a general law city, which means that you’re under the guidelines of the state for things like the salaries that the elected officials earn, that the state puts limits on it according to how many people you represent. So if you’re a very small city, there’s limits on how much you can actually earn. So once you’re a charter city, those limits are gone and you’re free to raise your salaries as much as you like and of course, you know, normally these things are very transparent and the word gets out if you have a press on the alert then that would not happen. But in this case, this snuck under the radar and it was quite a scandal when it came out.

CAVANAUGH: We’re going to be talking more about the charter cities and what the implications are for city officials’ salaries but in light of this story, I know that KPBS surveyed the salaries of all mayors, city managers and council members throughout San Diego County and published the results on our website,, last week. What did we find out?

ST JOHN: Well, we found out there were no Bells in San Diego County. That’s a relief, I think, for all to see. Across the board, there’s only three mayors who are full time so they tend to earn a little bit more than the part-time mayors. And virtually all the city council people are part time except in the City of San Diego. So the salaries for mayors vary between, you know, just about $4,000 in Del Mar, where the population is extremely small. It’s less than 5,000 people living in the City of Del Mar. Up to $118,000 in Chula Vista for the mayor, so that’s a city of 225,000 people. Interestingly enough, the mayor of San Diego earns less than that, and that is, I think, because of all the political focus and spotlight there’s been on the City of San Diego after the pension scandal and every attempt to raise the salaries of the mayor and council has been – every year, there’s a commission that says we should raise these guys’ salaries and every year they don’t because the political climate is such…


ST JOHN: …that it’s just very unpopular for them to raise their salaries until the City of San Diego is on better financial footing. So the mayor of San Diego just makes $100,000, which is less than the mayor of Chula Vista at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Now, city manager is a full time job for a professional. Did you find any trends in salaries for that position? Does the salary, for instance, depend on perhaps the size or even the wealth of the city?

ST JOHN: It doesn’t seem to be as much tied to that as tied to the experience of the city manager and how many years that person has been at the city. If you find somebody who’s been at the city for 20 years, which in the case of the two highest paid city managers—in San Marcos and El Cajon—is the case, they were there for more than 20 years, they’re the highest paid. They’re way more than the elected officials because they’re all full time and they are essentially responsible for the day to day running of the cities. So $200,000 is an average for a city manager and in the case of El Cajon, you have $240,000 and San Marcos also. Those two cities have – are paying their city managers more than $240,000 a year. In some cases, they’re earning 20 times as much as the mayor if the mayor is just earning virtually a stipend.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Alison St John. She’s senior metro reporter for KPBS. We’re bringing in our guests, Douglas Johnson and Jessica Levinson. We’re talking about how city officials are paid in San Diego County, and it’s all related to this recent scandal in Bell, California where their city officials were making hundreds of thousands of dollars and taxpayers were apparently unaware of that. We’re taking your calls about what you think about city officials’ pay at 1-888-895-5727. Let me turn to Douglas Johnson for a moment. He – a fellow of the Rose Institute of Claremont McKenna College. You’ve been researching California government and politics. We just heard the city managers are making quite a bit more than mayors. Is that something that happens a great deal? City managers making the most? It happened, we know, in Bell.

JOHNSON: Right, it definitely is standard across the state except, as Ms. St John mentioned, where there’s a full time mayor like San Diego or Los Angeles.


JOHNSON: Because the city manager is full time and, you know, he or she is the front person on the firing line every day, so it’s a tough job and they do get paid a lot to manage that.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know one part of the Bell, California story that hasn’t gotten as much publicity as the salary number is the exceedingly generous benefits for its appointed and elected officials: retirement, sick leave, vacation, etcetera. Douglas, what is your take on benefits for city officials? How do we judge if they’re fair or not?

JOHNSON: Well, the first step, as we’ve now learned with salaries, is disclosure. A lot of this is kept secret and we’re seeing this in particular in Bell where the city manager’s benefits cost the city 700 grand a year and now it turns out the assistant city manager was making more in benefits than she was in pay in Bell. So the first step is just let’s be honest and open and disclose what these packages include and then it comes down to a rational debate within the city. You know, one of the great lessons of Bell is that when the people of the city learned about the problem, they’re taking care of it awfully fast. So if we share this information, it does make an open debate and some of these people are worth, you know – actually, I’d most of these city managers and top staff are worth what they’re getting paid in these jurisdictions. It just looks bad when it gets hidden.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of benefits and allowances do city officials get besides the usual retirement and healthcare packages, Douglas?

JOHNSON: Well, there’s, I guess, what some people call gold-plated healthcare and this is actually a bigger problem with part-time councils. But in some cases, the elected officials and sometimes the top management get a different healthcare package than the run of the mill city employees do. And in many cases, it’s for life. This is one of the problems Bell will face is that those benefits were not just for while those people were employed. Those benefits were promised for the rest of their lives, which is a sign of a bigger problem we have which is right now California governments can promise benefits and not have to put aside money to pay for them. They stick the bill on future leaders.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. We’re talking about what city officials make. We’re talking a little bit about Bell, California but a lot about San Diego County. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call right now. Robert is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Robert, and welcome to These Days.

ROBERT (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you. Yeah, I would like to have it better illuminated what the total packages are for city officials in San Diego. I have retired neighbors, high school graduates. They’re younger than me. Former City of San Diego employees. They’re making a combined $150,000 a year. They’re 55 years old. If they live to be 85, that’s worth $4.5 million, not counting their gold-plated medical. They just bought an airplane. I’m 57. I’ll be working another 8 years to get my $2,000. So anytime you talk about their compensation, please do add in all those numbers. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We’ll try. Thank you, Robert. And, Alison, how would you like to respond?

ST JOHN: Yes, I think this is the bottom of the iceberg, as you might say. The salaries are what’s floating on the surface. And from what I understand from people who have taken courses, for example, in city management and local government management, that is kind of one of the things that gets discussed is how to increase compensation without increasing your salary. There are so many ways to do it. And KPBS did actually ask the cities in our survey what about the benefits? And if you can see our charts with the benefits column, they are all so full of different varied benefits that it was impossible to tabulate that and put it into a graph. It’s not an easy thing to make comparisons but I think that’s one of the next steps that everybody is contemplating, is how do we look at what is a fair benefit package because the benefit packages – I mean, I could read some of them here. Health, dental, vision up to $11,500. Car allowance, $4,200. Discretionary travel allowance, $1,500. Reimbursement for actual unnecessary expenses, enrolled in CalPERS retirement plan, and then, of course, the question comes, how much is each person contributing to their pension plan? The CalPERS pension plan is the one run by the state, which most cities—not the City of San Diego but most cities—are enrolled in that plan. So everybody is aware that, you know, they’re thinking about pensions and most people are contributing to a plan but in many municipalities the city has taken over the payments into the pension plan instead of increasing salaries and this has been, over the years, a part of labor negotiations. Okay, we can’t increase your salary but we will pick up some of your contributions to your pension plan. And then there is another huge submerged part of the iceberg that, I think, remains to be assessed, which is the retiree health. And that is a different situation from the pensions because it has not been decided that that is vested and, therefore, unchangeable guaranteed, cannot be overturned. So there will probably be a great deal of discussion about municipalities’ commitment to retiree health for up to, you know, 40 years after they retire. And in view of the fact that, you know, we have healthcare – the healthcare debate going on right now, I think it’s very interesting to see that people in public service often have their healthcare coverage, you know, even if they retire early, before Medicare, they’re covered. So these are all issues which are becoming more public now about public employee compensation. And, of course, you have to be aware that, you know, the private sector also has its way of concealing its compensation, so it’s not just the public sector but it is the taxpayer who’s paying these salaries.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 about what city officials in San Diego are making. And first of all, I’d like to go to our guest, Jessica Levinson, and talk a little bit more about the charter city versus general law city. The City of Bell, where we started out this conversation, Jessica, is a charter city. What does that mean and what kind of leeway did that give them to go for these rather astronomical salaries?

LEVINSON: Well, when a city’s a charter city, it means that it has a lot more control over the functioning and organization of that city, and that can be a really positive thing. It gives the city officials who live in that city much more flexibility in determining what works best for the unique needs of their residents. And it, arguably, also gives residents more power because the city charter can only be passed and amended by a majority vote of the city residents. However, this flexibility can really be a double-edged sword and I think that’s the tragedy of the Bell situation, is that something that really should allow city employees to say this is what works best for us was really abused and exploited to let the officials in Bell really pull the wool over the eyes of their officials – excuse me, their residents. And that is what allowed the city officials to give themselves these really extravagant and sweetheart deals. I mean, because Bell was a charter city, that’s why the city manager has a compensation package that, you know, with salary and all these benefits that we’ve been talking about is basically at $1.5 million a year. And so that’s really the kind of tragedy of what should be used as a very effective tool to promote government in certain cities.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue to talk about compensation for San Diego city officials and how it stacks up against compensation in other cities across California, and take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Right now, we’re taking our cue from the scandal up in Bell, California, in LA County and KPBS has looked into the compensation for city officials around San Diego County. My guests are Alison St John, Jessica Levinson and Douglas Johnson, and we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s go to the phones and hear from Mel calling from San Diego. Good morning, Mel, welcome to These Days.

MEL (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. I have a couple of suggestions. Number one, that the city should post their salaries and their benefits on their internet. They have web pages. And then the public can see what they’re getting.


MEL: The second comment is that on Bell, as an example, this is an example of the media, the newspapers, television news, etcetera, not doing their job because if they had done their job, people would’ve known what these crooks in Bell were paying themselves. And I hope that KPBS – maybe you have to work harder to get the information on the pensions that the elected officials and bureaucrats are getting and the – all the other perks that they get.


MEL: I know it’s difficult because I read what was posted on your webpage…


MEL: …said, well, it’s too difficult to put the pension plans on there. Well, just work harder.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you, Mel. Alison, would you like to explain that a little bit?

ST JOHN: No, Mel, I think, you know, these are sort of the discussions that we have here, too, as to what the priorities are. And I think it’s like a second tier of research and will take a while. I mean, I think you notice politicians such as the State Controller John Chiang saying – Chiang saying we’re going to put salaries on the website and he is also now, I think, under pressure to be putting more than that, benefits on his website and the question is, well, how you do that when there is such a smorgasbord of different kinds of benefits? How do you compare them? I know that last year I did a comparison of the proportion of each city’s, each of the 18 city’s, general fund that was taken out by their pension obligations. And found that actually Chula Vista had a bigger share of its general fund taken out by pension obligations than the City of San Diego in spite of all the publicity that’s around San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Right, that’s surprising.

ST JOHN: So things are not always what they seem. And I think the fact that the City of San Diego has been under such scrutiny and has taken enormous measures to attempt to rein in that problem, although it’s still an escalating problem, is one reason why it’s not necessarily the top of the heap of those problems.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Douglas Johnson, as you’ve been researching California government and politics, I want to talk to you maybe to put this in context for us. What has been the rationale for providing city officials with generous benefits packages along the years?

JOHNSON: Well, there’s two pieces of this puzzle. The first is, is that this is a tough job and the public somewhat resists high salary numbers, especially, you know, the average Joe paying city taxes, making fifty grand a year is going to just instinctively react if those tax dollars are paying someone $200,000 a year. But it is a tough market and a tough job and people tend to not last very long in the city manager’s role. So as Alison’s survey found, people who do thrive and survive in that job tend to get paid well because they’ve proven their worth. The other piece of it in terms of the benefits side of this is that our benefit laws in California, and no surprise, are messed up and cities can promise benefits without having to put money away. So a current city council can promise the moon and doesn’t have to pay for it today. They leave the bill for future councils to deal with and so that tends to inflate benefit packages.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Douglas, I always heard that people in public service made a lot in benefits because they could make a lot more in the private sector and they were sort of giving that up in order to do a public service, a civic service, and, therefore, they were compensated by a stable job in a lot of cases and a big benefits package. Isn’t it – Is it perhaps the fact that the benefits have been cut, slashed, so much in the private sector that that equation doesn’t work anymore?

JOHNSON: Oh, it’s tough to say and this is definitely grounds for debate and widely debated. I think city government and government work in general is very stable as you work your way up the ladder. When you reach the city manager level, it suddenly becomes very unstable…


JOHNSON: …which is part of the reason they’re paid much more than the average city employee. It’s a good question and I don’t think we have a resolution on this. I think one thing to point out is that the California League of Cities and their City Manager Department have really jumped ahead of this and, as Alison pointed out, it’s really hard to classify these benefit packages and the city managers themselves are trying to figure out how to create kind of a model but model compensation package…


JOHNSON: …and a survey of this. It’ll take time. You know, we’re certainly far from the end of this story.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jessica, I want to get your opinion on this. You know, how do you get good people to stay in government and have a stable workforce, which a city needs, without a good benefits package?

LEVINSON: Well, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say we want really good public officials and we will pay them a reasonable salary. I think the problem here and the reason why you’re running this very important story is that the benefits were just absolutely unreasonable. And I think some of what we do is comparative shopping. What are other people with similar levels of experience, with similar responsibilities and duties, what are they not only getting in salary but also, as we’re discussing, which is so important, what are they getting in these benefits, in retirement, in vacation, in medical care? And I think it should be in some ways much like the private sector where we look to similarly situated people, and I think we should take into account two things. One is that government work tends to be more stable and the other is that right now it’s a terrible job market for people in the private sector and so wages are being depressed and we do want to make sure that, to a certain extent, public and private wages and compensation is commensurate with duties and responsibilities.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Daniel is calling us from Clairemont. Good morning, Daniel. Welcome to These Days.

DANIEL (Caller, Clairemont): Yes, I want to thank your reporters and though I feel like Mel, too, that more work needs to be done, I do want to thank your reporters. They’ve been doing very good jobs. And as a person who sued the city council of San Diego, the only person who sued them on pension-related issues recently that I know of, I really wish that we could do something to get a little bit more public openness to what’s going on here. Again, like your correspondents have said, that a lot of times things are promised that we can’t afford, and that’s what my suit was about because it was going to up the level and lessen the length of time and investment being vested into the pension for people that were on city council and that’s going to drain the fund quicker. And that’s a very sad thing because those public safety workers and those regular workers should be getting their benefits and it’s drained off beforehand.

CAVANAUGH: Daniel, thank you for your call. Let’s take Jim, calling from San Diego. Good morning, Jim, and welcome to These Days.

JIM (Caller, San Diego): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you…


JIM: …for taking my call. Hi. I just wanted to take exception to one of your previous callers, what he said. His name is Mel.


JIM: He said that the media – this has happened up in Bell because the media wasn’t doing its job. And the reason this got exposed is because the Los Angeles Times, which found out about this and did stories on it, investigated it thoroughly, they were doing their job. The same thing happened down here in San Diego about five years ago when Randy “Duke” Cunningham was exposed. I wasn’t living down here then but I believe that was first investigated by the Union-Tribune here.

CAVANAUGH: It certainly was.

JIM: Yes, and so I think that that’s kind of a bad rap. The media has enough rap right now. The Los – excuse me, I was a newspaper reporter. I did not work for the Times, I worked for a newspaper up in Ventura. But it’s a – the media has a tough time right now. In the last ten years, the LA Times staff is just a little bit over half the size it was ten years ago and yet they’ve gone in when they find out about this stuff. They got some tips and they exposed it and they’ve had stories on this every day, exposing just a new angle in the last three weeks or so that this has been out. That’s all I wanted to say but I just wanted to make that comment.

CAVANAUGH: Jim, thanks for pointing that out. Alison, in your report, Oceanside City Council, brand new Oceanside City Councilman Chuck Lowery says he believes most people in Oceanside voted to change Oceanside to a charter city but they didn’t realize all the implications of that change. And as we heard from Jessica, part of the implication of that change is that the city officials can start to pay themselves more.

ST JOHN: Themselves and other people in the city if they were so inclined. I think in the case of Oceanside, that there’s no evidence of that happening so far but it’s just the potential that is there, and there are 8 out of the 18 cities in San Diego which are charter cities. That’s right and, you know, the whole thing about a charter is that it was sold on the idea that it would save the city money because a city would not have to pay prevailing wage on public works projects. If they were going to be using state and federal funding, they would still have to pay prevailing wage. But if they were just going to be using the local money, they wouldn’t have to pay prevailing wage, which would save, in some cases, hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. So, certainly in the case of Oceanside, a lot of people were seeing their services cut and thought, well, hey, any way we can save money, we’re going to go for it. Now in speaking with Doug, actually Doug Johnson earlier, he made the point, well, it’s actually very difficult to become a charter city. You can spend months, you know, going through all of the details about what you want your city – it’s like the constitution of your city. And I know that the City of San Diego spent months and months working on the strong mayor form of government because it was changing its charter. In the case of Oceanside, it all happened in the space of six months and the thing was pretty much drafted by the Building Industry Association sort of cutting and pasting from other cities’ charters. And I just don’t think that people were aware of what they were sign – they were voting for. So I think this is interesting because it’s bringing out one of the things that is an implication and people need to be more aware of. And, of course, as soon as the light of awareness is shown on something, usually the danger is averted so this is a salutary tale that has cropped up in Bell.

CAVANAUGH: Jessica, is there a move towards charter cities now in California?

LEVINSON: I think there is a general trend towards more charter cities because, you know, as Alison said, it can save money and also from the perspective of city officials, it gives them a lot more flexibility. City officials may not want to be tied to exactly what the California Government Code says they have to do. They can establish their own elections dates and rules and procedures for elections. They can even establish their own rules for how city council members can be qualified to run for office. There’s lots of different steps along the way that allow charter cities to have a lot more flexibility and so I think as cities are growing, developing, becoming more sophisticated, a lot of city employees and elected officials are saying we really know how to do these things better. The state doesn’t have a specialized knowledge about what works best in our particular area for our particular residents.

CAVANAUGH: So, Douglas, as charter cities develop and the issue of salaries for city officials becomes more of an issue, how easy, generally speaking, is it for citizens to get information about the benefits and the salaries for their elected and appointed officials?

JOHNSON: Well, before Bell it was very, very hard. I wanted to follow up on Mel and Jim’s comments earlier. The open records law in California has a personnel clause that many jurisdictions, including Bell, use to hide their compensation packages. You know, not only was the media and the people of Bell unaware of what the council was getting, one of the five council members didn’t know what the other four were getting paid, and that was all because of this, what I would call, flaw in the open records law where the top – It should not protect the compensation packages of the top officials and city council. So it was only when the LA Times came in with their lawyers backing them and were ready to go to court to get these records that the City of Bell finally turned them over and, thankfully, this tragedy is – has made most cities turn 180 degrees and instead of resisting releasing this, which many, many did, now everyone or just about everyone seems to be getting on the bandwagon. But we still have that flaw in the open records law that needs to be fixed and the question of benefits is still an open question, will they release everything?

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Tom is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Tom, and welcome to These Days.

TOM (Caller, San Diego): Good morning, Maureen.


TOM: Hi. I have a different opinion than what’s been promulgated over your airwaves and in the Union-Tribune. I’m a retired public employee and for my entire career, I believe I was probably underpaid. And I’m retired now and I have a very modest pension and very modest healthcare benefits. And my point is this, is that it seems like, you know, the media is doing a sensational job on all these pension and benefit things. You know, you read about the City of Bell and I notice there’s been a war in the Union-Tribune, you know, they’re blaming public employees for all the fiscal woes of the city, county and state. And that’s just not the case for your average Joe public employee retiring. I really believe it’s sensational, it’s blown out of proportion and I have to say this, it’s scapegoating. In a bad economy, you know, they look towards the illegal immigrants, now all of a sudden there’s a war on public employees, and I was just wondering this is something new. Before…


TOM: …this great recession, we never heard anything about this. Is it or is it not scapegoating…

CAVANAUGH: Well, Tom, thank you. I think you’ve added a really good element to our discussion. Unfortunately, we’re just about out of time. Alison, let me go to you. What kind of reaction have you gotten from the information that we’ve posted on the web here?

ST JOHN: Well, I think people are reassured that at least on the salary front there isn’t anything resembling Bell. I think, you know, the public outrage is partly increased by the fact that many people are feeling very insecure about their own retirements and…

CAVANAUGH: Is it scapegoating you think?

ST JOHN: Well, I that’s perhaps putting it from – that’s one perspective but the other perspective might be that it’s actually an indication that, you know, this country’s retirement system is not very secure and so people are afraid for themselves and so they project that onto the people who do have a secure retirement. And you could argue perhaps that we should be going the other way in making sure everybody has a secure retirement although how you do that, of course, is a difficult question.

CAVANAUGH: Is the question. Well, I want to thank my guests because we are out of time. Alison St John, thank you.

ST JOHN: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Jessica Levinson, thanks so much.

LEVINSON: Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: And Douglas Johnson, thanks for talking with us.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to go online and comment, please do, And to find out what your city officials are making, our interactive Google map is at Coming up, the threat of the light brown apple moth as These Days continues here on KPBS.