Our town is truly an amazing place. Sometimes I think that I must be living in a dream when I stand at the edge of the bluffs looking at the waves rolling in from the Pacific Ocean. I slowly close my eyes. Surely, if it’s a dream then when I open them the ocean in front of me will be gone, only to be replaced with something else. Thank goodness it’s still there.
As many readers of the Our Town column know, I am a Santa Monica activist. My primary concern is the current rapid rate of overdevelopment in Santa Monica and the associated erosion of our beach town character and charm and the impacts that this overdevelopment will have on our environment and quality of lives.
Although I have consistently advocated for a reversal of City Hall’s apparent steroid induced pro-growth policies of late, I along with most residents have had a general sense that our city is fiscally healthy and financially well managed.
Of course we are recovering from a recession. Of course the dissolution of our Redevelopment Agency has affected our books. Of course the rising cost of healthcare and retirement benefits have had impacts. But in the back of my mind, I have always had a sense that our elected officials and city managers were effectively and responsibly managing our town’s financial affairs.
So imagine my surprise when I read the recently released investigative report prepared by the 2012-13 Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury which ranked Santa Monica 64 out of the 88 incorporated cities in Los Angeles County with respect to our city’s practices in governance and financial management.
So what is the grand jury and what is its function? The grand jury is comprised of 23 jurors who serve a one-year term. The grand jury’s main function is to investigate county, city, and joint-power agencies. The grand jury acts in a watchdog capacity, by examining carefully and completely the operations of various government agencies within the county.
Based on the recent city-government corruption scandals in the cities of Bell and Vernon, as well as concerns that certain cities may be facing bankruptcy, the 2012-13 grand jury elected to investigate all 88 incorporated cities to determine the fiscal health of those cities. It also sought to determine if the cities were following the “best practices” for governance and financial management, as established by the Government Financial Officers Association (GFOA). Compensation for city employees who earned over $200,000 per year was also addressed in the report.
In determining if cities were following best practices for governance and financial management, the grand jury sent out a questionnaire to all 88 cities. The cities of Long Beach and Redondo Beach tied for first and scored 97 percent positive on the questionnaire. The cities of Industry and Cudahy tied for last place with 28 percent positive responses. Santa Monica was ranked a disappointing 64 with a 63 percent positive response. Put in another way, if Santa Monica was in school she would have taken home a “D” on her report card.
Additionally, as part of the investigation, the grand jury requested information on city employee compensation for those employees receiving over $200,000 in taxable compensation in calendar year 2011. After receiving a “D” grade for “best practices” for governance and financial management, Santa Monica was able to bring up her grade point average by receiving a strong “A” in this department.
Santa Monica had 64 city employees (with a resident population of 92,703) who received over $200,000 in wages in 2011. Compared to all 88 cities, Santa Monica ranked fourth highest in employees per capita who receive these high salaries (one employee per every 1,448 residents).
Santa Monica’s highest paid employee received $330,573 in 2011. But the more shocking fact was that 17 employees (out of 44 total employees) in the city attorney’s office received over $200,000 in wages in 2011.
So, what am I trying to say here? I am not trying to say that Santa Monica city employees are overpaid. To the contrary, I believe that Santa Monica should pay its city employees well in order to be able to attract the best employees for our city. And it has been my experience that Santa Monica city employees, across the board, are highly qualified and capable professionals. My hesitation however lies in the contradiction that we are ranked 64 out of 88 cities for “best practices” in governance and financial management.
Our city staff, city manager, city attorneys, all of whom are the best of the best (and paid as such), have been concentrating all of their efforts in pushing the pro-development agenda of our elected city officials above all other concerns. It appears as though our City Hall’s pro-densification policies are consuming our town’s well paid and highly qualified city employees such that the “best practices” of governance and financial management have been tossed to the side.
I am afraid that at this pace, one morning when I close my eyes as I stand at the top of the bluff along Palisades Park and then I open them, the Santa Monica I love will no longer exist.
This column was authored by Armen Melkonians, civil and environmental engineer and a grassroots advocate for resident democracy. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org