Positive reforms, Transparent California Edition

Transparent California was back in the news again this month, as a pair of agencies adopted reforms in response to our previous reporting.

In Riverside, the City Council received the results of an audit that was commissioned in response to our story that a utilities dispatcher made nearly $400,000, after receiving the state’s 10th largest overtime payout.

The Press-Enterprise reported on the progress the city took after our report was published:

changes began in 2017, after the website Transparent California reported that dispatcher Donald Dahle received the 10th largest overtime payout in California in 2016 — double his six-figure base salary.

“Since the time period covered by the audit, we noted the City and RPU have hired additional staff, and made significant improvements to strengthen internal controls, such as new policies and procedures, and implemented overtime monitoring procedures,”

In BART reining in janitor overtime after public fallout, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on how much things have changed since our story of a BART janitor’s $271,000 pay package went global:

“There’s been a lot of attention paid to getting salaries in alignment,” said Robert Raburn, president of the BART Board of Directors. “We’re righting the ship and making sure we have reasonable workforce policies in place.”

And in Marin, we got back to basics as we provided residents with complete information regarding the local pension fund, with the Marin IJ covering the release of the new, 2017 pension data in a remarkably thorough piece.

And for a project explicitly focused on California, it is always neat to see the wide reach of the site. In The Pleasure and Pain of Being California, the World’s 5th-Largest Economy, the New York Times gave us a nice shout-out:

Facebook revealed last month that the median pay of its employees was $240,430 a year. But the fire chief in San Ramon has been doing pretty well, too, with total pay and benefits of $516,344 in 2016, according to the website Transparent California. And nearly 200 police officers across the state make more than $300,000 a year, when overtime and benefits are included.

To all who donate to help keep the site going, thank you for making this possible. Have a great weekend everyone!

TransCal helps uncover “hidden” employment

A group called Restore the Delta cited TransparentCalifornia.com for helping to shine light on the past employment history of the newly appointed California Department of Water Resources Director:

STOCKTON, Feb. 22, 2018  Documents acquired by Restore the Delta from a recent a public records act request to Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) confirm that newly appointed California Department of Water Resources Director (DWR) Karla Nemeth was a MWD employee from 2009 to 2014, earning over $900,000 in total compensation.  During her MWD tenure, she was contracted to work for Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) planning under the CalFed program, and then by the California Department of Water Resources. All PRA documents sent by MWD to Restore the Delta can be read here.

Representatives from various state water agencies and policy groups downplayed Ms. Nemeth’s pro-tunnels employment history with MWD in a recent Sacramento Bee report, while Restore the Delta maintained that Ms. Nemeth’s work history should be further scrutinized as a conflict of interest. Specifically, Restore the Delta noted that a report from Transparent California indicated Ms. Nemeth’s complicated employment history between MWD and California Natural Resources Agency.

You can read the full report here.

Madera resident uncovers city officials’ hefty pay raises

The ABC30 report, Madera resident claim city administrators gave themselves hefty pay raises, is a great example of how TransparentCalifornia.com is used by concerned citizens interesting in understanding how their tax dollars are being spent.

Click here to watch the TV segment.

As it turns out, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The questions about Madera’s hefty pay raises led to a full-length response from the mayor in the Madera Tribune.

But that response only made matters worse, as we documented in our report Madera mayor misleads residents in attempt to hide unjustifiable, excessive pay raises.



California needs to put some heat in its sunshine law

In an exclusive op-ed for The Modesto Bee I discuss the importance of adding penalties to California’s Public Records Act. A slice:

When a government denies access to public records in violation of the CPRA, those requesting the information have only two choices: give up or sue.

Suing can take months and be very expensive. So, many simply give up.

As a result, some governments have become accustomed to violating the law in especially indefensible ways.

Another way agencies obstruct access is by charging excessive “production fees.”

That’s what happened in our recent request from the Southern Kern Unified School District. The district’s official response alleged that providing the requested records would take 35 hours of staff time, and thus demanded payment of a $1,150 programming fee before they would proceed.

The letter closed by directing all questions to the district’s legal counsel, Bill Hornback, suggesting this determination was made in consultation with an attorney.

We often hear from residents who get similar responses and feel they have no recourse and give up.

When the average citizen gets a letter from the government or its attorneys claiming something as fact, how many are comfortable disputing the claim?

Unable to fork over the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, those citizens are simply denied access to the information they are entitled to have.

Because Southern Kern Unified uses identical payroll software to a neighboring school district — who attested the information could be provided in under 5 minutes at no charge — we knew their $1,150 programming fee was bogus.

Despite telling Southern Kern this, no substantive response was provided until we finally threatened legal action three weeks later — at which point the information was provided in just a few hours at no cost.

Be sure to read the whole thing by clicking here!

The impact of transparency

More great examples this week of the importance of transparency in government, all made possible as a result of California’s Public Records Act.

The Press-Enterprise continued their outstanding investigative reporting by following up on our finding that a Riverside utilities dispatcher tripled his salary to nearly $400,000 due to overtime.

In Riverside officials knew since 2015 about soaring overtime that exceeded some utility workers’ regular paythe paper dug deeper into the underlying issues, revealing that the practice caused at least some stuff to raise alarm bells years in advance of our report, which unfortunately went unheeded. A slice:

The utility’s large overtime tab in the electric operations division grew steadily beginning around 2012, but it became noticeable in 2015.

In June that year, the emails show that one dispatcher sent colleagues an email with the subject line, “Overtime and REST TIME in DANGER,” in which he proposed they all make suggestions on how to trim overtime costs before management did it for them.

One employee responded: “We have a contract. They have to honor it. … Don’t think stuff up for them.”

In March 2016, Electric Field Manager Ron Cox wrote to Utilities Principal Analyst Shelly Almgren to explain why the electric division had exceeded its overtime budget three months before the end of the fiscal year.

Read the full article here.

In other news, our CalPERS 2016 release received quite comprehensive coverage, as shown below:

Thanks to the tireless Jack Dean and his Pension Tsunami website for compiling the above!

All of this reporting then led to a fantastic Santa Cruz Sentinel editorial, California taxpayers pay high cost for public employee pensionswhich observed that:

… something is out of whack in our state, where government pensions, benefits and salaries are far beyond what most working people in the private sector could ever hope for.

A keen observation. While defenders of public pay extol their high pay as a virtue that others should seek to replicate, it is neither fair nor sustainable when that high pay comes at the expense of those earning much less.

If you value the work of Transparent California, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today!

TransCal in the News

A pair of articles demonstrates how TransparentCalifornia.com data helps to empower the public.

An East Bay Times op-ed entitled EBMUD, Central San rate hikes? Give us a break argues that continual rate hikes are the result of soaring pay packages:

In April, the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District approved its latest rate increase for treating wastewater flows, now charging $530 annually per single-family home.  That’s a 182 percent increase since 2000, when the rate was $188.  And, 2018’s planned rate boost to $567 will take the 2000-2019 increase to more than 200 percent.

Meanwhile, the district’s board approved a 4.4 percent salary increase for its employees in this last year of a current five-year contract that has guaranteed an increase every year.

Placing related figures posted at http://transparentcalifornia.com on a spreadsheet shows Central San’s 278 full-time and highly compensated part-time individuals as having already averaged $116,280 in 2016 pay, and $100,437 in benefits, including extraordinary pension contributions, funded by district ratepayers.

The benefits also provide 13 paid holidays and up to six weeks of vacation.

An excellent VoiceofOC.org report, “Amid Funding Shortfall, Santa Ana Raises Median Police Compensation Above $213,000″ exposes how elected officials sell out their constituents — who had median private earnings of only $27,000 — while enriching the public unions who get them elected.

A slice:

As for the market rate comparison, Kurtz, the interim city manager, said city staff’s analysis found Santa Ana was below the officer pay rate for comparable cities by a couple of percentage points.

Kurtz said she wasn’t able to immediately provide a copy of the analysis, but that it looked at cities of a similar size and level of service, and within the same geographic pool Santa Ana would be competing with.

Voice of OC reviewed police compensation data for Santa Ana and the other two largest cities in Orange County, Anaheim and Irvine. The review found that before Wednesday’s pay raise, Santa Ana was already compensating its officers more than its two largest neighbors.

Santa Ana’s starting salary for officers was $4,400 higher than Irvine’s and $6,100 higher than Anaheim’s. And last year, median total compensation for Santa Ana officers was higher than Irvine and Anaheim, both with and without overtime included.

The police union is by far Santa Ana’s most significant election campaign contributor, with over $400,000 spent on last year’s City Council and mayoral races, including support and attack ads. It is widely expected to be a major spender in next year’s city election as well.

Obviously the average Santa Ana resident is incapable of competing with the political influence of the police union, which is why the City Council continues to enrich them at the expense of residents.