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Driven by pay scandal in Bell, California city managers advocate salary reform

July 29, 2010 |  1:13 pm

Faced with public outrage over large municipal salaries in Bell, city administrators throughout California met Thursday and promised statewide reforms including guidelines for setting pay for managers and requirements that compensation figures be made easily accessible to the public.

More than 30 managers from across the state met in Sacramento, condemning the high compensation provided to three administrators in the small, working-class city of Bell and discussing changes to better prevent misuse of public funds.

"There really has been a violation of the public trust," said Ken Pulskamp, the city manager in Santa Clarita, in describing the Bell salaries.

Pulskamp is president of the administrators group for the League of California Cities, which he said is working with state legislators to draft a change in state law that would require salaries of highly compensated city, county and state managers to be made easily accessible to the public, possibly by posting them on a website.

The league held the meeting in Sacramento in response to reports by The Times about large salaries paid to three Bell executives. Former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo earned nearly $800,000 a year. Rizzo, along with the city’s police chief and the assistant city administrator resigned last week.

"Something broke down in terms of transparency, in terms of knowledge of the community," Pulskamp said.

The league is compiling a survey of salaries paid to city managers in California, with the idea of making the list available to the public. The managers are also drafting statewide guidelines for use by city councils and others setting the compensation of administrators, asking that they consider the pay of managers in comparable cities, with similar experience and duties.

Pulskamp said one guideline being considered is that city managers receive a single salary rather than multiple contracts or assignments that carry their own pay.

The mood was somber among the managers, several of whom said they were concerned the salary scandal in Bell would tarnish the work of administrators in other cities. But some managers voiced concern that the Legislature might go too far in regulating an issue that should be under local control, and asked that any guidelines not unreasonably tie the hands of city councils negotiating to get top talent for management jobs.

"All of us are surprised, shocked and concerned about what happened in Bell," said Ted Gaebler, city manager of Rancho Cordova, outside Sacramento. But he said he worried about the effect of inflexible rules on city officials, warning that they could "put a lid on their creativity if you put a lid on their salary."

Chris McKenzie, the executive director of the league, said the group would oppose any statewide effort to impose salary caps.

-- Patrick McGreevy