The scandal in Bell -- a tiny city that handed out big paychecks -- has created a public-relations headache for cities and counties across California.
It has prompted legislative proposals and an order by state Controller John Chiang for detailed pay information on local government employees. It also has prompted citizens to wonder: Are salaries out of control in my city?
Over the last two weeks, The Bee tested the willingness of the 33 counties and cities in the central San Joaquin Valley to make salary information public.
Most complied with The Bee's request under the state Public Records Act for name, job titles and gross pay in 2009 for all full-time employees. Gross pay includes overtime, bonuses, housing allowances, sick leave payout, vacation payout and any other form of cash compensation.
City officials know that making this information public could anger or embarrass some employees. But most acknowledged that anyone has a right to see what public employees are paid.
"Our attorney said, 'You have to do it,' " Woodlake city administrator Bill Lewis said, summing up the conclusions of many local municipalities. "If we don't like it, we don't have to be in this line of work."
The data -- which The Bee has posted in an interactive online database at www.fresnobee.com/citypay/ -- showed none of the excesses found in Bell, where the city manager was receiving nearly $800,000 a year. But there were some surprises:
- Larger governments generally pay better, but not always. The small cities of Sanger and Dinuba, for example, had average salaries nearly as high as those in Fresno, Clovis and Visalia.
A public record
Most cities responded promptly to The Bee's request and provided complete information within the 10 days allowed under the state Public Records Act. But a few didn't comply with the law.
Farmersville, in Tulare County, never responded, despite repeated inquiries. Avenal and Corcoran for the most part provided only pay ranges, not exact figures.
Some of the biggest governments in the region get only partial credit in this test of transparency.
Fresno, Kings and Madera counties said they would provide the information, but it would take time -- until next week for Kings, mid-September for Madera, and likely two to three months for Fresno.
The counties said they needed the time to make sure that names they are allowed to withhold -- such as those of undercover investigators -- were not made public.
City attorneys and legal experts agree that the information sought by The Bee is public record.
Terry Francke, co-founder of Californians Aware, an advocate for government access, said the salary information was "unquestionably" public record, and that included the pay and names of "absolutely everybody" -- including those at the bottom of the scale.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, another nonprofit organization that works to protect the public's right to information, said it was "an unqualified yes" that the salary information is public.
"This is not one of those gray areas where two good people can disagree on what the law requires," he said.
Some questioned whether news organizations are serving the public good, however, by publishing pay amounts for employees who receive modest wages.
"I don't think you need the janitors," said Bob Stern, president of the nonpartisan Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "If it is under $30,000, really, you don't care."
Fresno City Manager Mark Scott's reasoning was different, but his conclusion was the same -- the public doesn't need details about workers toward the bottom of the pay scale.
"Neighbors can get on and see what they are making and it will embarrass some people," he said.
Fresno provided the salary information requested by The Bee, including most names. This week, it plans to post the data on its own website -- but only department heads and top officials will be listed by name.
One attorney disagrees
In saying the data are public, legal experts pointed to a 2007 California Supreme Court ruling that involved an effort by the Contra Costa Times newspaper to obtain the names and pay of Oakland employees who received $100,000 a year or more.
Scheer said the ruling forced cities and counties to honor public record salary requests for its employees.
That same ruling, however, is cited by Michael Farley, a Visalia attorney who is representing Avenal and Corcoran. Farley concluded that cities only had to disclose salaries of employees receiving more than $100,000 annually.
Citing two cases -- including the 2007 Supreme Court ruling -- Farley wrote in an e-mail to Avenal that was forwarded to The Bee that both decisions "recognize the public's right to know the public employee's name and the compensation.
"However, it is uncertain, at this time, whether or not the public employee's name must be stated together with the gross salary versus stating the public employee's name and the range of salaries for that position. The City has elected to disclose the [latter]."
Scheer, however, said every legal expert involved in that case -- even those who felt the Supreme Court's decision was wrong -- concluded that cities and counties couldn't confine such requests to their highest-paid employees.
Several local governments -- including Madera County, Visalia and Fresno -- cited the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in excluding some police officers who could be jeopardized by making the information public.
Some said they needed time to comb their payrolls not just for undercover officers, but for other workers who could be hurt if their names were made public, such as those who have restraining orders against people who do not know where they work.
Both Fresno and Madera counties say this becomes especially complicated when it means tracking down workers who have since left the job.
Beth Bandy, Fresno County's deputy director of personnel services, said about 800 of the county's 7,000 workers in 2009 are now gone. She said the county must reach them and get legal documentation returned if there is a protective order in place.
"This is not an easy process," she said. "I don't want any missteps."
A threat to morale
There also is a keen awareness among Valley cities and counties that the Bell scandal has suddenly cast a light on public-employee pay, and that making the information public is a sensitive issue as many wrestle with furloughs, pay cuts and other threats to employee morale.
In Kerman, City Manager Ron Manfredi sent out an e-mail warning employees that The Bee and others had requested employee pay information. He then took particular aim at the state Legislature, where several bills intended to discourage exorbitant pay and increase disclosure at the municipal level were introduced after the Bell pay controversy.
"Because of the abuses of a few like the City of Bell a 'Reform' movement regarding 'investigating' public employee compensation and benefits is sweeping the State," Manfredi wrote in the e-mail.
"... t is frustrating that our 'doing nothing' State Legislature, that can't even pass a budget, no less a balanced one, is attempting to take the focus off their ineptitude and blatant incompetence and 'leading the charge' regarding compensation of local, public employees."
Ultimately, the Bell scandal -- coupled with the 2007 state Supreme Court decision -- likely means public-sector employees should get used to their salaries being a matter of public record.
"It is intrusive in a way that people who don't work in the public sector do not experience," Scheer said. "I recognize that and am sympathetic with that. But the Supreme Court heard those arguments. It, too, was sympathetic, but felt that the public interest in making this information available was greater."