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L.A. Court Managers Get Raises Behind Closed Doors

Spending: Under funding law, process is no longer public. Judge defends pay increases, which average 13%.

May 23, 2000|JEAN GUCCIONE and ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles County Superior Court leaders went behind closed doors last month to give 46 high-ranking managers pay raises that averaged 13%--many of them in the range of $10,000 to $25,000 a year.

The nearly half-million dollars in pay hikes was the first move by a merged trial court that, after years of begging for funds from the county Board of Supervisors, now controls its own purse strings.

The raises and the secretive process by which they were granted were largely an unknown consequence of the shift in fiscal control over the courts in all 58 California counties.

That shift--under the 2-year-old Trial Court Funding Law--has taken the job of paying for the courts away from county governments and delivered it to the Judicial Council of California. The relatively obscure agency meets in San Francisco, making local public review difficult.

Meanwhile, a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998 has led to the merger of municipal and superior trial courts throughout the state. When lawmakers pushed for the amendment, they said it would produce huge savings--as much as $23 million a year statewide--by thinning the ranks of highly paid court administrators and making the judicial system run more efficiently.

Los Angeles court officials say they have cut at least five administrative positions, saving close to $700,000.

However, interviews and documents show that judges turned around and spent two-thirds of that money--$493,016--on raises for their top-level staffers. The raises went into effect April 15.

In the most extreme case, they approved a 37% increase for the court's public information officer.

"That's just unbelievable," said Karleen George, organizing director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents rank-and-file court staffers and begins contract negotiations next month.

Judge Victor E. Chavez, who presides over a sprawling court system that stretches from Lancaster to Long Beach, said the raises were needed to boost morale and keep salaries competitive after a decade of county budget slashing.

"If you think it's a mystery, we have nothing to hide. I'm proud of it, in fact," said Chavez, who oversees the 428-judge Superior Court, the largest local court system in the country.

Public Review Occurs Far From L.A.

The pay raises are linked to a massive administrative reorganization undertaken since January, when the county's 24 municipal courts were merged into the Superior Court system. The Los Angeles judges were among the last to approve a merger, which has taken place in all but three counties.

Under the old system, annual budget hearings before the county Board of Supervisors aired local court funding issues publicly.

Now, however, public review of court funding is limited to legislative hearings in Sacramento, where lawmakers deliberate over the judiciary's statewide budget, and to the Judicial Council in San Francisco, where each county's court budget is set according to categories such as personnel and security costs.

After the money arrives in the county courts, local judges and court administrators have wide discretion over it. In other California counties, jurists have used their savings from the mergers to give employees raises and pay for extra courthouse security, state officials said Monday.

In Los Angeles County, a 22-member executive committee of judges now decides how to allocate a $500-million annual budget.

And those decisions can be made behind closed doors.

Chavez said that after the courts were merged in January, he appointed a seven-judge committee to review the salaries of the executive staff. The panel, known as the ad hoc committee on parity, drafted a set of six recommendations that set new salaries for a variety of high-level executives without identifying all the affected positions or how much these managers were making before the raises.

Documents and interviews show that the executive committee of judges quietly awarded the raises last month, when the committee approved a "Pay Parity Report." The report was handed out in envelopes marked "Confidential."

When The Times inquired what had happened during the April 12 committee meeting, court spokeswoman Jerrianne Hayslett said, "It's not official yet. It's confidential."

Asked who might be available to discuss the committee's deliberations, Hayslett said: "There's no one."

However, The Times later obtained a list of the approved raises, which went into effect three days after the committee vote.

The biggest beneficiary: Hayslett herself, whose salary was bumped up 37%--from $67,860 to $92,856. A former journalist who joined the Superior Court nearly nine years ago, Hayslett arranges media coverage of high-profile trials, writes and distributes news releases and fields inquiries from news outlets.

She was among 22 district administrators and executive staff members whose salaries were increased to $92,856. That compares with annual salaries of $117,912 for the judges they serve.

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