The newest database of public employee salaries in Pasadena has hit the internet.
Transparent California, a branch of the nonprofit think tank Nevada Policy Research Institute, released those earnings figures for 2017 earlier this month.
Pasadena finds itself in the middle of the pack compared with most California cities of similar populations with respect to several high-ranking positions. At about $312,000 in salary and $404,000 in total compensation and benefits, City Manager Steve Mermell makes more than his counterparts in Fullerton, Orange and Visalia. But city managers in Torrance, Palmdale and Pomona outearn Mermell.
The same pattern held true for Pasadena’s former Chief of Police Phillip Sanchez, who retired earlier this year. He earned about $300,000 in salary, and $412,000 in total compensation, including benefits. Like Mermell, Sanchez topped some comparable California cities but fell short of others.
The public disclosure of government employees’ salaries is not without controversy. A 2012 survey by Governing magazine found almost 30 percent of state and local government officials said their salaries should not be part of the public record. About half said they didn’t mind the salaries being posted, but didn’t believe they should be identified by name.
Mermell said he supports the idea.
“I think it is totally appropriate for the public to know the compensation schedules for public employees,” he said.
“We report the range or top step as it were and not the actual pay of the particular employee,” he added. “However in some cases, such as my own, what’s listed in my contract is my actual pay rate.”
Publicly available salaries include not just government officials, but all public employees, from lifeguards to landscapers.
Compensation expert Justin Hampton said city salaries can sometimes appear out of proportion when compared to private-sector pay.
“Referring to the executive level, we have to look at total compensation. City employees generally do not receive bonuses, or long-term (or) equity incentives, which often composes the majority of an employee’s total compensation package in the private sector,” he said.
“So, even though they may have a higher base salary, their year-over-year earnings are significantly less working for a city or county. The exception being police and fire, usually through overtime.”
And while Hampton said he favors the disclosure of public salaries, he doesn’t think employees should be identified by name.
“Since the salaries are supported by tax dollars, it is important for cities to disclose salaries by position. This transparency promotes independent review and holds the organization accountable to its constituents and helps to avoid situations such as the one that occurred in Bell sometime around 2012,” he said.
“However, most people find having their names and earnings published to be an invasion of privacy and a negative. This situation, unique to government, likely has some impact on the ability to bring on the most talented folks into a city (or) county, so in my opinion, the benefit of including names is outweighed by the negatives.”
Noel Isama, a policy analyst with the Sunlight Foundation, dedicated to government transparency, comes down on the side of disclosure.
“Obviously, we do understand that there are privacy concerns that everybody has to disclose how much they make, he said. “But I think it is a different thing when you do enter the public realm. Simply, you don’t want mystery around how public money is being spent.”
“We’re not going to suggest that one that gives up their privacy rights by working for the public or working with the public, so to speak,”Isama added. But he said the public has a right to know where its tax money goes.
The information posted by Transparent California is publicly available through public records requests, but many people don’t know it, and can’t easily access it, Executive Director Robert Fellner said.
“Transparent California tries to make (the information) truly public and accessible by putting it on a site that’s free and open to everyone to use, as opposed to individuals having to reach out to the agencies with their own Public Records Act requests,” he said.
Public salary data is of vital public interest, Fellner said.
“It’s, it’s the biggest governmental expense there is,” he said. “In many cities, employee pay and benefits could be 75 percent to as much as 80 percent of the general fund budget.”
California’s public pay is among the highest in the nation, according to Fellner “Especially the pensions are soaring.”
“It’s really important that the public knows how that money is being spent, especially as California has one of the highest tax burdens in the nation and is continually passing a new taxes every year.”
Transparent California has run its database since 2008. It can be viewed online at transparentcalifornia.com.