Whitman accuses Brown of Bell-style mismanagement

Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman on Monday accused Democratic rival Jerry Brown of presiding over a Bell-style salary scandal while he was mayor of Oakland.

The charges, aired in a new mailer and radio ad aimed at Los Angeles County voters, come as Brown, the attorney general, gains political traction with his office’s expanded investigation into the Bell controversy. Three of that city’s top administrators have resigned.

At a news conference Monday, Brown announced that his office was serving a second set of subpoenas on nine current and former Bell officials to compel them to give depositions. Separately, he called for a complete review of how local governments determine public employees’ salaries.

Brown said the case “highlights the danger of secrecy and lack of accountability and calls into question the adequacy of our protections and standards.”

Whitman is seeking to blunt the political advantages for Brown, who has run a shoestring campaign, largely reliant on his high-profile office and labor-affiliated groups to take his name and his message to voters. Although experts said Whitman’s accusations don’t amount to Bell-style excess, they raise questions about Brown’s management skills that will be heard by millions of Californians at a time when outrage over public salaries and benefits is driving the political debate.

Bell has been the focus of national attention since The Times revealed that many of its officials were receiving unusually high salaries. They included former City Manager Robert Rizzo, who was being paid $787,637 a year plus benefits, for total compensation worth more than $1.5 million.

Whitman’s media offensive is clearly designed to undermine Brown’s credibility as he embraces the role of public watchdog in the case.

Her mailer features a black-and-white image of Brown next to a mountain of cash and the words “mismanagement, overpayment and failure.” It concludes: “Californians can’t afford more bloated pensions and salaries with no accountability. We can’t afford Jerry Brown.”

Specifically, the mailer notes that an Oakland city attorney made more than $180,000 a year during Brown’s tenure as mayor and says the number of workers earning more than $100,000 a year grew by “47.5 percent” from 2005 to 2006.

It also gives a confusing statistic about the number of city workers earning more than $200,000 growing by “740 percent” over three years — with no mention of how many workers that included or what they were previously paid.

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said Whitman’s accusations were absurd.

“Meg Whitman has completely removed fact from context,” he said.

Clifford said the number of Oakland employees making more than $200,000 a year rose from five to 42 from 2003 to 2006, because of overtime pay. Thirty-one were firefighters, he said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a local government firefighter was $44,800 in 2008, the most recent available. The maximum annual base salary for a fire chief was $104,780, not including overtime.

“There is a problem in all cities where you have powerful unions for police and firefighters,” said John Ellwood, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. “They can work lots of overtime, get pensions at a very young age” and increase their payouts through last-minute promotions.

He added: “The problem is, who wants to go one on one with the police and fire unions?”

Whitman has painted Brown as a pawn of organized labor and cited a 2007 report by Oakland’s city auditor as proof of Brown’s poor management of public employee salaries.

Among the auditor’s findings: Managers received more leave than allowed under union contracts, with one employee being allowed to sell back 480 hours of sick time — five times the authorized amount; city employees received salary advances that amounted to interest-free loans; and one employee was erroneously awarded 22 extra vacation days and was paid for them.

The total cost to taxpayers was $3 million, the auditor’s report said.

When the report was published, the city issued an official response calling many of the findings “inflammatory and misleading” and saying it had already taken steps to correct the problems. The audit, officials added, focused on “less than 2% of all city checks issued.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.