Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has handed out more than $200,000 in bonuses to key staff members the past few years, raising universal outrage among City Council members who say they were unaware of the cash payouts.
The bonuses at issue – which include the 2014 budget year and continue through the current year – came as the city emerged from dark budgetary times born during the Great Recession that featured the constant specter of bankruptcy. The current $1.2 billion budget includes more money for some departments.
The bonuses also may violate city law. In 2010, the council 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. Part of the act requires the administration to disclose all compensation – including bonuses and deferred compensation – every year during the budget hearings.
But City Council members say that hasn’t been done since 2012, and both they and union officials were apparently in the dark about these bonuses.
During Thursday’s City Council meeting, council President Oliver Baines took a moment to address the issue from the dais. He said the council will consider “additional safeguards” on bonuses.
“To be very clear, this is not about whether or not certain employees are performing well,” Baines said. “It’s about transparency and compliance with policy.”
When Baines finished his brief statement, each of the other six council members took a moment to say publicly they concurred with the statement.
I’m really appalled because they nickel and dime us.
Marina Magdaleno, business representative for International Union of Operating Engineers AFL-CIO/Stationary Engineers Local 39
The largest bonuses, totaling almost $56,000, went to City Manager Bruce Rudd over two budget years, 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.
Others getting bonus money include city retirement system administrator Stanley L. McDivitt (more than $26,000); Georgeanne White, Swearengin’s chief of staff, and Kelli Furtado, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff ($20,000 each); and Economic Development Director Larry Westerlund, who got $10,000.
Swearengin administration officials downplayed the bonuses, saying each one is part of a negotiated contract. The bonus money given each year, officials said, was part of the budget approved that year by council members. Some of the bonuses were for pay, while others were for retention, a way of keeping an employee around.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Swearengin said:
“We are extremely fortunate and blessed to have people like Bruce Rudd and Jerry Dyer remain committed to serving the people of Fresno. Both the city manager and the police chief and a handful of other senior leaders in our city are dramatically underpaid for a city the size of Fresno. We have tried to make it up as best we can with annual bonuses, but even with the bonuses, these folks are still underpaid. ... I’m just grateful they are willing to continue serving our community in their positions when they could easily retire or go work somewhere else and make significantly more money.”
Both the city manager and the police chief and a handful of other senior leaders in our city are dramatically underpaid for a city the size of Fresno. We have tried to make it up as best we can with annual bonuses.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
City officials also said many of those who received bonuses were furloughed during the worst years of the recession, and also took a 3 percent pay cut – which together added up to a 5 percent pay reduction.
Dyer was one of those.
Besides the pay cut and furloughs, he also gave back two $20,000 bonuses that were part of his contract, as well as his uniform allowance – $1,200 annually – for two years. He also said he made the same concessions as sworn officers, which included giving up holiday pay time accrual.
In total, he said he gave up at least $70,000 in compensation during the depths of the recession.
“During the recession I was trying to do my part to help us get through the financial crisis,” he said.
Such statements drew little sympathy from some quarters.
Marina Magdaleno, business representative for International Union of Operating Engineers AFL-CIO/Stationary Engineers Local 39, said she was unaware of the bonuses, but expressed outrage when told about them.
“I’m really appalled because they nickel and dime us,” she said. “It just really ticks me off.”
Magdaleno said Local 39 workers have not had a pay raise since 2011 and during the most recent contract negotiations they took a 4 percent pay cut by agreeing to pay the city’s portion of the retirement contribution.
Council members were equally unhappy.
Lee Brand, co-author of the Transparency in City Government Act along with then-council member Henry T. Perea, who is now in the state Assembly, said the issue isn’t whether a bonus is justified or is needed to keep the city’s salaries competitive. “It is about conveying a message to the public that the city is poor and then selectively rewarding certain employees.”
And some employees, he said, have seen huge salary increases on top of the bonuses.
“My staff has not had a raise in seven years,” Brand said.
He acknowledged that the Transparency Act has no teeth. But he said he plans to fix that.
Brand’s fellow council member Esmeralda Soria was also unhappy.
“I am outraged and disappointed to learn that the administration has given fat bonuses to bureaucrats while hundreds of our city staff, who also work hard to keep our city going, have taken cuts and have gone without raises for many years,” Soria said. “While bonuses may be allowed, the fact here is that the administration violated the Transparency Act, which is city law, and hid these bonuses from the public. These taxpayer dollars could be going to our neglected parks and understaffed fire and police services. I look forward to offering reforms that will prevent future abuses and provide more transparency.”
Bonuses being challenged
City Manager Bruce Rudd: Base salary $189,000, retention bonus up to $20,000/year (signed 7/20/2013, no raises)
Police Chief Jerry Dyer: Base salary $178,164, retention bonus up to $20,000/year (signed 12/31/2014)
Georgeanne White, chief of staff to Mayor Ashley Swearengin: Base salary $117,640, $20,000 bonus
Assistant City Manager Renena Smith: Base salary $180,000; received bonus in August 2015 for prior year
Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly Furtado: Base salary $100,000, $20,000 bonus
Economic Development Director Larry Westerlund: Base salary $107,640, $10,000 bonus