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:
- Reporting Transparency in Government, a searchable database of employees of the state
- League of California Cities, survey of city manager compensation
- State Controller’s Office, website for local government salaries and compensation
- Los Angeles Times, database of city manager compensation across Los Angeles County
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or mail it to 202 W. 1st St. Los Angeles, CA 90012, attention City Desk.