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City of Bell salaries: Robert Rizzo is only a symptom

Pay caps and greater transparency are a start in preventing more abuse, but what's really needed is an overhaul of the California Constitution.

August 11, 2010|By Ben Boychuk

How do you solve a problem like Robert Rizzo?

In the short run, there will be a push for greater transparency, pay caps and restrictions on pension benefits. These things may quell the immediate outrage over revelations that the city manager of working-class Bell and other top officials earned fat, six-figure incomes. But the truth is, the eye-popping salaries, platinum pensions and lavish perks accorded Rizzo and his colleagues are merely symptoms, not the disease.

Nor is the disease confined to one small municipality in southeast Los Angeles County. Yes, Rizzo's salary and those of Bell's part-time City Council members, who made nearly $100,000, a year were extraordinary, especially in a town where 1 in 6 residents lives below the poverty line. But in many ways Bell is California writ small.

What ails our state is a sclerotic, dysfunctional, largely unaccountable "progressive" system of government, the roots of which date back more than a century. In the quest to purge politics of corruption, cronyism and the undue influence of "predatory" special interests, "reformers" have erected an activist, bureaucratized and centralized administrative state.

Self-styled progressives at the turn of the 20th century gave Californians the initiative, referendum and recall as ways of circumventing a Legislature in thrall to powerful business interests. The reformers established local nonpartisan elections in an effort to check the outsize influence of political machines. They envisioned professionally administered cities overseen by men and women trained in the modern science of management. Men like Rizzo, who holds a master's degree in public administration from Cal State East Bay.

Little did the reformers realize a century ago that the civil servants would themselves become predatory interests, preying on the private sector and the taxpayer.

Progressive reforms also led to the proliferation of independent state and local boards, commissions and special district authorities — the kinds of panels Bell City Council members appointed themselves to in order to inflate their salaries to more than $8,000 a month. They served on such diverse bodies as the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Community Housing Authority, the Planning Commission, the Public Financing Authority, the Surplus Property Authority and the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority. Public records show that those boards and panels met as little as one minute a month.

When news of Rizzo's base salary of $787,000 broke, he arrogantly told a Los Angeles Times reporter: "If that's a number people choke on, maybe I'm in the wrong business. I could go into private business and make that money."

Yes, Rizzo is in the wrong business. And it's doubtful he could make $1.5 million a year in salary and benefits in the private sector. Although running a big, bafflingly complex government isn't easy, public service was never supposed to make civil servants fantastically wealthy. Rizzo owned an attractive house in Huntington Beach and a horse ranch in Washington state on a salary financed by taxpayers who struggle to rent apartments on median household incomes of about $30,000 a year.

What's worse, when Rizzo "retires" at the end of August, he stands to collect $650,000 a year from the troubled California Public Employees' Retirement System for the rest of his life. CalPERS recently announced it would place an "administrative hold" on Rizzo's pension, pending an investigation. But if it turns out Rizzo's 12% annual raises were legal, then taxpayers will be on the hook.

Progressive reformers decided representative government was a problem, so they shifted authority and accountability from voters and elected officials to unelected bureaucrats. It's easy to point the finger of blame at elected incompetents, such as Bell's mayor. But it's more difficult when real power resides with the likes of Rizzo, a man who enjoyed a comfortably anonymous life until a few weeks ago.

Greater transparency, which civic leaders invoke so often it's now practically a cliche, might help prevent future would-be Rizzos from profiting so handsomely from the public. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says state law should mandate that all city officials' salaries and benefits be posted on the Internet. That probably couldn't hurt, but it wouldn't solve the problem of the administrative state.

So how do you truly solve a problem like Rizzo? Cap city administrators' salaries and reform the pension system, by all means, but understand that hose are limited, short-term fixes. Long-term, Californians need to rein in the excesses of bureaucracy and restore accountability by re-embracing the idea of elected, representative government.

It took the better part of a century for the Golden State to reach this perilous place in its history, at which unelected bureaucrats live like plutocrats and taxpayers groan under the burden of unsustainable state and local spending. Undoing the damage will be the work of generations. But it will start with returning central authority to local governments, stripping the crazy-quilt of special districts and overlapping agencies, and tearing down the wall of statutes and regulations that empower bureaucracies and make true accountability — accountability to the people — impossible.

In short, it requires a wholesale overhaul of the state's constitution, with the aim of reversing a movement that makes locally elected governments mere servants of the administrative state.

Ben Boychuk (b.boychuk.3@gmail.com) is a fellow of the Claremont Institute's Golden State Center for State and Local Government.

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