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Pay Analysis Unfair

February 21, 1988

I weary of weak efforts at . . . muckraking journalism that the otherwise responsible Times seems to have to do. (It's like a bout of journalistic flu.) Taking aim at old hackneyed issues such as the salaries of public employees, particularly those at the top, is such reporting. ("2 Dozen With County, City Have 6-Figure Incomes," Feb. 14).

At a minimum, I would expect the reporter to fully understand the issue of compensation in this day and age. Investigative journalism requires knowing the facts.

Within the pages of The Times' Business section about a year ago was an in-depth look at the salaries and benefits packages of the highest paid CEOs in the private sector in California. There was an elaborate accounting of so-called "golden parachutes," a modern-day elaboration of severance pay, so elaborate that they are often million-dollar packages.

The comparison of public sector CEOs' compensation should include all forms. With the complicated benefits packages that get negotiated in the private sector, which includes stock-option plans, automobiles, golden-parachute provisions and other imaginative assets, the real comparison is that top CEOs very often make 10 times to 20 times more in salaries and benefits than public CEOs, and not the 3 times to 4 times quoted from the Taxpayer's Assn.

The reporter suggests that those in the private sector have higher-risk employment, that is, less job security, raising the image of the fat bureaucrat slurping at the public trough forever. I would draw the reporter's attention to the recent ouster of Mr. Murray, our city manager, by our City Council to remind The Times that all of these jobs are held to a standard of accountability by boards or councils of public officials that are elected by us.

Also, there is a psychological distortion that most people have about numbers and that the reporter hoped to capitalize on. Somehow a headline screaming "6-Figure Income" is supposed to alarm. Our perception of dollars never accurately keeps up with inflation. I make nearly 10 times more than I did 25 years ago and yet a lot of that increase is simply inflation. $100,000 doesn't buy very much today, and yet having that number roll over from five digits to six has a psychological impact way out of proportion to what it means. Thus the six-figure ceiling is a political ceiling, not a real one.

There is the notion in our body politic that a public servant should be a public indentured servant. It is time to change that perception. Our world is rapidly achieving a complexity that no one understands, and we need to have the best and the brightest in positions of responsibility both within and without government.


La Jolla

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