Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Friday issued a written statement apologizing for not being more forthcoming about bonuses and deferred compensation totaling $300,000 that her administration awarded to key staff members over the past few years.
“We dropped the ball,” Swearengin’s statement began.
The 11-paragraph statement came after Swearengin met with Council Members Oliver Baines and Lee Brand, who told her the seven-member council was united in its desire to strengthen oversight of bonuses and deferred compensation – possibly to the point of individually approving each request.
We dropped the ball.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
“On this issue, this council is lockstep,” Brand said.
Swearengin also called the other five council members to apologize and reiterated that apology in her statement.
“We will make it a priority to not only comply but to go above the mandated requirements to provide the public as well as our elected officials with the information they deserve,” she wrote.
Earlier this week, council members became aware of the bonuses and deferred compensation, which is income paid at a later date, such as a pension. The monetary awards came during the current fiscal year, as well as the 2013-14 and 2014-15 budget years.
The largest bonuses, totaling almost $56,000, went to City Manager Bruce Rudd over 2014 and 2015. Assistant City Manager Renena Smith received $30,000 – $10,000 annually in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Police Chief Jerry Dyer received $20,000 in 2015. Smith, Rudd and Dyer also received deferred compensation. Combined, Rudd’s money totaled more than $100,000.
“It was important to entice him to stay through my second term,” Swearengin said of Rudd.
In 2010, the council unanimously approved the Transparency in City Government Act, which requires the city to post on its website information about city employee earnings and payments to consultants and also requires the administration to disclose all compensation – including bonuses and deferred compensation – every year during the budget hearings.
Brand said the meeting with Swearengin went well, though at this point the mayor and the council might not be in total agreement about amendments to the Transparency Act.
Brand and Baines plan to draft the council’s prevailing mindset into a concrete proposal over coming days. Swearengin has offered to be part of the process. It is unclear whether council members – who were not only united, but visibly angry about the bonuses and deferred compensation – are in any mood to compromise with Swearengin on this issue.
We’re not General Motors. We’re the city of Fresno. These are taxpayer dollars.
Fresno City Council Member Lee Brand
Her administration hasn’t supplied the information in three years, council members said. Swearengin’s excuse, according to her statement: Her administration was really busy.
“In the midst of balancing all the responsibilities of running the city of Fresno and moving major initiatives forward, we let the last two reports required by the City’s Transparency Act lapse,” she wrote.
That likely won’t be the case moving forward.
“She knows changes are coming,” Brand said. “She will hopefully approve it.”
At the same time, any sort of impasse could make it harder for Swearengin to fully implement her vision for Fresno in her final 14 months in office. Tough decisions remain on the opening of Fulton Mall to traffic, the city’s development code and bus rapid transit.
Still, council members seemed ready to move forward.
“I was deeply troubled by the news of the bonuses, but I think that we can get more done by working together than by fighting,” Council Member Clint Olivier said. “I’m sure that as a council we will come up with some safeguards going forward to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Council Member Steve Brandau had not seen Swearengin’s written statement, but said she had called and apologized, which he said “seemed heartfelt.”
In the midst of balancing all the responsibilities of running the city of Fresno and moving major initiatives forward, we let the last two reports required by the City’s Transparency Act lapse.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
But beyond Swearengin’s words of apology, there was also the hint of defensiveness.
“I’d like to clear up a few things,” she writes.
Swearengin goes on to say she “didn’t ‘hand out’ bonuses.” She says Rudd was offered “a retention bonus two years ago as a part of his contract negotiation when he was hired as our city manager.” Rudd then offered performance and retention bonuses to several other employees. City officials often make the point that the mayor only oversees the city manager. That person, in turn, oversees the administration’s bureaucracy.
In addition, Swearengin writes that “the bonuses weren’t ‘secret.’ ” They were included in employee contracts, which were part of department budgets that were approved by the council.
“No one received any money above what was approved in the budget,” she wrote.
This is another point of contention with the council. Some members are not happy with the suggestion that they somehow gave their blessing to the bonuses. They point out that, with attachments, the annual budgets can be 10,000 pages long. It is easy for things to get lost in the shuffle.
For his part, Brand said he’s not against bonuses, and said it is the administration’s role to determine whether an employee is worthy of one. But he said the council oversees the budget and must be in a position to determine whether bonuses or deferred compensation make financial sense.
“We’re not General Motors,” Brand said of the private sector corporation. “We’re the city of Fresno. These are taxpayer dollars.”