$800,000 for a City Manager? The pay scandal in the City of Bell

The absurd salaries paid to the top brass in Bell, Calif., not only illuminate what happens when self-interest trumps public service, but also goes to the heart of what public service means.
by | August 9, 2010 AT 9:00 AM

The absurd salaries paid to the top brass in Bell, Calif., illuminates what happens when self-interest replaces (trumps?) public service.

Bell's City Council approved raises that brought the city manager to an annual salary of nearly $800,000, with his assistant city manager earning nearly $400,000 and the police chief more than $450,000. These salaries are by far the highest in California, and obviously outliers, never mind the fact that Bell is a community of only 38,000 residents.

So it might be easy to dismiss this scandal as another sorry example of the abuse of power in poor communities without a strong civic culture of accountability.

Yet it also bears directly on the escalating debate going on across California and the nation about salaries and benefits in the public sector. It goes to the heart of what "public service" means in the 21st Century.

Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was quoted in a Los Angeles Times article defending his absurdly inflated compensation. "If that's a number people choke on, maybe I'm in the wrong business," Rizzo said. "I could go into private business and make that money. This council has compensated me for the job I've done."

Clearly, Rizzo is in the wrong business. Not that local government doesn't need talented and ambitious people just as much as (if not even more than) the private sector. But there is a profound difference between the rewards due public servants and those grabbed by Wall Street buccaneers and superstar professional athletes. The salaries commanded in Bell are flatly unethical. They violate the standards of public service that are vital to self-government in a democracy.

Public service is a public trust. The duties and responsibilities of local government are too important and sensitive to entrust to mercenaries.

There was a time when public servants accepted that our work would never command equal financial rewards as private-sector success. Not because our work is any less important or easier than "comparable" private-sector responsibilities, but because we work for the public, not ourselves. That doesn't require a vow of poverty. Just like our next door neighbos working in private business, we owe our kids similar opportunities, like a college education.

Clearly, though, the reward for our work is not measured solely by how nice a home we have or car we drive. It also comes from the pride we take in the value of the jobs we do -- as teachers, fire fighters, accountants and water treatment plant operators. That may not directly pay the rent or put food on the table. But satisfaction in serving the public must be part of why we work for government. If that isn't rewarding, then we indeed are in "the wrong business."

The intense debate over public-sector salaries, benefits and pensions is rising as both state and local governments grapple with hard financial choices. But an us vs. them mentality hurts us all. As a nation, we are adjusting to a "new normal" that is more sustainable than the 'borrow and spend' mentality that got us into this mess. Those of us in public service can and should lead the way in making sacrifices that demonstrate our commitment to the public we serve.

The public would also benefit from recognizing the shared interest we have in reasonable compensation for the demanding and important work done by people in government. Slashing pay may sound appealing, but do we want the quality of our water, long-term investment in our sewer system and the response to medical emergencies to be in the hands of a constantly churning and underpaid workforce?

There is a reasonable middle ground beyond the divisive battles that pit public servants vs. taxpayers. There is honor in public employment -- an honor obviously not found in the top brass working in Bell. Their example shows how unchecked greed can subvert public service. It can also remind us there is danger in tilting too far in the other direction.