This piece was originally published on Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole’s blog, The Long ViewSanta Monica Next also covered this issue here and here.

I recently wrote about the always controversial issue of public employee compensation. In the first post, I welcomed scrutiny and sought to correct some glaring misstatements in the media regarding salaries and benefits in Santa Monica. I wanted to provide some context for how we compare to similar cities. In the second, I pointed to what I believe is the most serious challenge facing public agencies, the significant underfunding of long-term future pension obligations.

I also committed to address the agenda of groups like “Transparent California” which present themselves as public watchdogs, but play down their political agenda.

There is little on Transparent California’s website that explains who they are, how they are funded or what their purpose is. They do acknowledge it is a “project” of the Nevada Public Policy Research Institute. On NPPRI’s website, that group describes itself as “a free market think tank.” It proudly boasts of its “innovative campaigns to help union members opt out of union membership.” It was founded by Judy Cresanta, longtime Republican National Committee member, who cites as her inspirations “Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation; Jeff Coors of Coors Brewing and the Castle Rock Foundation; Bill Bennett, former secretary of education under President Reagan; and Morton Blackwell of the Council for National Policy.”

There is nothing sinister about these associations – it is a free country. What is concerning though is a lack of “transparency” about the motives of Transparent California’s misleading attacks on public sector compensation.

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Today, across America, government itself has become the avowed enemy of some who champion “the free market.” They seize on every scandal and abuse (whether real, exaggerated or imagined) in pursuit of discrediting public institutions.

Sometimes they are right in their concerns. Like any human endeavor, government is far from perfect. But in relentlessly publicizing every public sector shortcoming, they potentially undermine the very institutions of public governance that create the conditions for free markets to prosper. Again, criticism of government is fair game.  But slashing and often unfair attacks can play to — and can inflame — mistrust and cynicism about public institutions generally.

Of course, it is not just the right side of the political spectrum stoking concerns about the legitimacy of public institutions. Many on the left (or single-issue advocates) also pound a steady drum-beat of attacks on the integrity, fairness and competence of those who serve in government and the imperfections of public institutions. Today’s widely-recognized polarization and divisiveness can come from both sides of the partisan divide, causing increased doubt about whether democracy is working – or even can work – in our society.

I chose public service to make it work more effectively. I too am a critic of many of our shortcomings.  But I worry about the growing tendency to assume that every report of a government shortcoming is accurate — or fair.

Let’s pause to examine whether those mounting the sharpest attacks have self-interested motives. Let’s put into context that 20 million local and state government workers are providing valuable services to our communities every day of the year. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of them are doing the best they can within the limitations we impose on public institutions – limitations that ironically are often motivated by our mistrust of government. Yes, government can be slower, more expensive and less effective than we’d like.  But the public is often the source of those restrictions on efficiency and effectiveness – to protect our rights, to ensure transparency, to promote fairness and to curb potential abuses.  The private sector operates without many of those constraints – and has its own share of scandals, abuses and shortcomings.

Our Founding Fathers had many blindspots.  But one thing they were prophetic in anticipating was that democracy is fragile.  In fact, that’s why they were suspicious of pure democracy.  Instead, they set up a democratic republic.  Educated on Greek, Roman and English history, they drew on those lessons to set up systems of checks and balances.  These deliberate brakes on the will of the people have stood the test of time.  We have gradually become a more perfect union not by demonizing our public institutions but by reforming them.

We all have an interest in public institutions that work fairly and effectively. There is ample room for thoughtful and factual examination of issues like public employee compensation.  Let’s be transparent, however, about any concealed interests of those who pose as public watchdogs.  Sometimes their agenda is not to reform public institutions but to discredit them.  Whatever those motives might be, they ought not be hidden in the shadows.

  • calwatch

    As I posted on the other article, it is am interesting conundrum, though, as we as a society, in both public and private life, try to chase superstars like Rick Cole. Is “good enough” ever good enough? And how much are we willing to pay for the best?

    Especially at the top, cities don’t want to fail and hire mediocrity or people who have a risk of causing scandal or incompetence. Transparent California and the media generally focus on high paid executives. To be fair many of these executives could be working in the private sector and get paid double or triple and the public would not know any better.

    And for some areas, such as policing, we want to pay people better since you don’t want underpaid cops taking bribes, or underqualified officers committing civil rights violations that cost taxpayers more. In that aspect, many city managers have actually said Transparent California has a negative impact in their bargaining, since competing agency salaries can be readily verified.

    On the other hand, Santa Monica Next’s odd averaging of salaries in the previous article, and its neglect of the cost of benefits, specifically health care and Other Post Employment Benefits, are a glaring disservice to its readership. When the City’s pay structure incentivizes people to get the gold plated PPO instead of Kaiser, the nation’s #1 ranked HMO, at taxpayer expense, that is wrong. When agencies throughout the state aren’t even prepaying their retiree health insurance benefits, or disclosing the costs of OPEB like cash pension costs, that is wrong. When the City tells everyone else to take transit, but refuses to eliminate free parking in its union contracts, that is wrong.

    Ultimately, although off topic, I hope for a single payer healthcare system so that these expenses can be taken off municipalities’ books totally. Even so, employees and retirees might demand a higher tier of benefit over what is provided by Medicare for All, and citizens and elected officials need to resist those demands.