Rose Fellow Douglas Johnson on City of Bell Scandal

Rose Institute Fellow Douglas Johnson was featured in an interview with Megan Cavanaugh of These Days on KPBS radio station in San Diego. The program discussed the City of Bell scandal, particularly as it relates to San Diego County. Also featured were Alison St. John, a senior Metro reporter for KPBS and Jessica Levinson, the director of Political Reform for the Center for Governmental Studies. The transcript of the radio show is available here.

Johnson discusses how city managers are often paid more than mayors and the importance of disclosure regarding benefits for city officials. He says, “the first step, as we’ve now learned with salaries, is disclosure. A lot of this is kept secret… just let’s be honest and open and disclose what these packages include and then it comes down to a rational debate within the city. You know, one of the great lessons of Bell is that when the people of the city learned about the problem, they’re taking care of it awfully fast. So if we share this information, it does make an open debate and some of these people are worth . . . I’d say most of these city managers and top staff are worth what they’re getting paid in these jurisdictions. It just looks bad when it gets hidden.”

Johnson also explains that benefits for many upper-level city officials last for life. He says, “California governments can promise benefits and not have to put aside money to pay for them. They stick the bill on future leaders.”

Johnson ends by discussing how difficult it has historically been for citizens to get information about the benefits and salaries their elected and appointed officials are receiving. He notes that “before Bell it was very, very hard… The open records law in California has a personnel clause that many jurisdictions, including Bell, used to hide their compensation packages. You know, not only was the media and the people of Bell unaware of what the council was getting, one of the five council members didn’t know what the other four were getting paid, and that was all because of this, what I would call, flaw in the open records law. It should not protect the compensation packages of the top officials and city council. So it was only when the LA Times came in with their lawyers backing them and were ready to go to court to get these records that the City of Bell finally turned them over and, thankfully, this tragedy has made most cities turn 180 degrees and instead of resisting releasing this, which many, many did, now just about everyone seems to be getting on the bandwagon. But we still have that flaw in the open records law that needs to be fixed and the question of benefits is still an open question: will they release everything?”

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