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Executive's pay raises a bit of a stink

The nearly $290,000 in total compensation is so large that O.C. sanitation board is split on approving it.

August 29, 2008|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Sanitation District's general manager has been awarded a raise that will bring his total compensation to nearly $290,000 in the coming year and make him one of the most highly paid government executives in Orange County.

The compensation package for James Ruth -- which includes a performance bonus, deferred compensation and reimbursement for out-of-pocket medical expenses -- was so hefty that some members of the sanitation district's board of directors voted Wednesday night to oppose it, resulting in a rare split vote on a top government manager's pay.

The package ultimately passed, 18 to 5, with two members absent.

Board members, including those who opposed the package, said Ruth has done an excellent job managing the district, which has undergone a major overhaul and launched a world-renowned system to treat wastewater and eventually make it fit for human consumption again.

But the opposing board members also said they thought the percentage increase of the raise was too large, the bonus was inappropriate for a government manager and noted that the district recently imposed a 13% fee hike on its customers to pay for increased operating costs.

The district serves about 2.5 million people in northern and western Orange County, treating and disposing wastewater from Irvine and Newport Beach north to the county border and from the coast inland to Anaheim, Villa Park and Yorba Linda.

Those who supported the raise said Ruth deserved the money for excellent performance and that it was in line with a survey of salaries for similar positions throughout the state.

Ruth's new annual base salary is $225,000 -- up from nearly $210,000. But it is still below that of Orange County's other two top government managers, Executive Officer Thomas G. Mauk and Arthur T. Leahy, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority. In June, Leahy received a raise to $266,656 a year. Mauk's pay was set last year at $253,562.

But with a $14,700 bonus, $20,500 in deferred pay and up to $3,500 in reimbursement for medical expenses, plus the cost of other benefits, Ruth's total compensation is $289,364, according to staff documents provided to the board.

Leahy's total compensation, which includes categories similar to Ruth, is about $332,200.

Mauk does not receive a performance bonus on top of his salary, but his ancillary compensation was not immediately available Thursday.

"In view of telling the public we needed more money to operate, they probably didn't intend that money was going to go to pay higher salaries," said Constance Underhill, a sanitation district board member and Placentia city councilwoman.

"It just seemed inappropriate to give as large a raise as they planned."

Chris Norby, a member of the county Board of Supervisors and the sanitation district board, said: "I just felt that in this particular instance, the bonus and the overall jump were hard to defend."

Doug Davert, chairman of the sanitation district board and a Tustin city councilman, said a salary survey commissioned earlier this year showed Ruth was underpaid relative to executives in his position at other sanitation districts throughout the state, adding that the raises still did not bring him up to the median of his peer group.

In addition, Davert said, Ruth's work has saved the district tens of millions of dollars.

"Jim's performance has been exemplary," he said.

A sanitation district spokeswoman said Ruth was on vacation and not available for comment.

Before working for the district, Ruth served as Orange County's chief executive for nearly two years. He also spent 22 years working for the city of Anaheim, including 11 as chief executive.

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christian.berthelsen @latimes.com

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