California public records


    A guide to your rights as a citizen

    Peeking into officials’ paychecks

    The salary, be­ne­fits and oth­er com­pens­a­tion of pub­lic of­fi­cials are a mat­ter of pub­lic re­cord. State law lim­its the amount most city coun­cil mem­bers can earn.

    In the wake of the salary scan­dal in Bell, many res­id­ents want to know much money their city of­fi­cials make. Salar­ies of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials are pub­lic re­cords.

    How do I find out how much money my local officials are making?

    Pub­lic em­ploy­ees’ com­pens­a­tion and con­tracts are a mat­ter of pub­lic re­cord. Many agen­cies have be­gun to vol­un­tar­ily post their of­fi­cials’ salar­ies on their web­sites, and in oth­er cases, third parties or over­see­ing agen­cies have com­piled the in­form­a­tion. Here are some sites where you can find pub­lic em­ploy­ee com­pens­a­tion in­form­a­tion:

    Do I have the right to know how much public officials earn?

    All pub­lic em­ploy­ee con­tracts are pub­lic re­cord in Cali­for­nia. These typ­ic­ally show salary, med­ic­al and life in­sur­ance be­ne­fits, terms of va­ca­tion and sick leave, the agency’s con­tri­bu­tion to the em­ploy­ee’s re­tire­ment plan and any al­low­ances to be paid by the agency for items such as phone use, vehicle use, tu­ition and, less com­monly, hous­ing.

    You can also ob­tain a salary sched­ule that shows the pay scale al­lot­ted for vari­ous po­s­i­tions. Dif­fer­ent agen­cies have dif­fer­ent pay peri­ods, so ask the agency to cla­ri­fy the pay peri­od if it’s not clearly stated in the sched­ule.

    You can also re­quest re­cords of ac­tu­al pay­ments made to a spe­cif­ic pub­lic of­fi­cial. You might, for in­stance, want to re­quest re­cords of re­im­burse­ments to a spe­cif­ic per­son for mov­ing ex­penses, travel and oth­er ex­penses. When The Times com­piled its data­base of city man­ager com­pens­a­tion, re­port­ers re­ques­ted the total tax­able com­pens­a­tion paid to the city man­agers in the last cal­en­dar year, in­clud­ing salar­ies, bo­nuses and al­low­ances, and cashed-out sick and va­ca­tion time, but not de­ferred com­pens­a­tion or health be­ne­fits. What you re­quest de­pends on what you want to find out.

    What are the limits on officials’ compensation?

    City coun­cil pay in Cali­for­nia is lim­ited un­der state Gov­ern­ment Code § 36516 in gen­er­al-law cit­ies (those that have not ad­op­ted a city charter). The code lays out pop­u­la­tion-based coun­cil salary lim­its of $300 to $1,000 a month for city coun­cil ser­vice plus $150 a month for each com­mis­sion, com­mit­tee, board or au­thor­ity a coun­cil mem­ber serves on. Al­though there are no strict dol­lar lim­its on pay to oth­er pub­lic em­ploy­ees, that does not mean of­fi­cials have carte blanche to set sky-high salar­ies. Bell city of­fi­cials face both a civil suit and crim­in­al charges of mis­ap­pro­pri­ation of pub­lic funds in con­nec­tion with their com­pens­a­tion pack­ages, which in the case of City Ad­min­is­trat­or Robert Rizzo climbed as high as $1.5 mil­lion a year with salary and be­ne­fits.

    While there is no hard and fast rule that de­term­ines when a pub­lic em­ploy­ee’s com­pens­a­tion be­comes ex­cess­ive, Cali­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­er­al spokes­man Jim Fine­frock sug­ges­ted com­par­ing your of­fi­cial’s com­pens­a­tion to that of of­fi­cials with the same job in sim­il­arly sized or situ­ated cit­ies or agen­cies. If your city is pay­ing its po­lice chief sub­stan­tially more than a city down the road with a sim­il­ar-sized po­lice de­part­ment, something may be amiss.

    It may also be a red flag if com­pens­a­tion in­creases sub­stan­tially over giv­en a peri­od of time. In ad­di­tion to look­ing at cur­rent con­tracts, you may want to ask for past con­tracts and ask for re­cords of when and how the con­tracts were ap­proved.

    What are some ways officials may try to hide excess compensation, and how do I find it?

    In some cases, people may be paid for more than one po­s­i­tion or job title. A city man­ager might also serve as re­devel­op­ment dir­ect­or, for in­stance. City coun­cil mem­bers may serve on re­devel­op­ment agency boards or on oth­er spe­cial com­mis­sions and au­thor­it­ies. In the case of Bell, coun­cil mem­bers who made nearly $100,000 a year re­ceived most of their com­pens­a­tion from sit­ting on com­mis­sions — which in some cases did not even meet or held meet­ings that las­ted only minutes. To en­sure that you are cap­tur­ing the full pic­ture, you should re­quest the com­pens­a­tion for all po­s­i­tions held in the case of pub­lic em­ploy­ees, or for all au­thor­it­ies, boards and com­mis­sions, in the case of elec­ted of­fi­cials.

    In some cases, a pub­lic of­fi­cial’s con­tract may not state an an­nu­al salary — in­stead, it may in­clude a per-pay-peri­od fig­ure, mean­ing you will need to do the math.

    And in rare cases, agen­cies may lie or doc­tor doc­u­ments. Bell’s Robert Rizzo al­legedly lied about his com­pens­a­tion to cit­izens and went as far as hav­ing a false con­tract made up.

    “The guys in Bell, it really would have been hard to track down, be­cause they wer­en’t telling the truth about their com­pens­a­tion,” Fine­frock said. “They were split­ting up their com­pens­a­tion, they were hav­ing closed door meet­ings.”

    In cases where you sus­pect in­form­a­tion is be­ing hid­den, Fine­frock said, per­sist­ence is key.

    Share your documents

    If you have a pub­lic re­cord you would like to share with The Times, at­tach it to an email to doc­u­ or mail it to 202 W. 1st St. Los Angeles, CA 90012, at­ten­tion City Desk.

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