Reporting from Sacramento -- Responding to allegations of excessive government salaries and hidden cash accounts in Bell, Montebello and other cities, state lawmakers Wednesday moved a dozen measures aimed at preventing misuse of taxpayer money.
Legislative committees approved proposals to require public disclosure of government officials' pay, give better public notice of pay-setting meetings, make performance evaluations mandatory before big raises can be given, restrict automatic renewal of contracts and boost the state controller's power to investigate cities' finances.
The action comes days after the state controller launched an audit of Montebello's finances, saying there is evidence that officials produced false financial reports and established off-the-books bank accounts. In addition, a Los Angeles County grand jury last month indicted two Bell administrators for allegedly conspiring to illegally boost their pensions.
One of the measures that passed a Senate committee Wednesday would require local and state officials to disclose annually how much they receive in salary, benefits, perks and reimbursements and to have the information posted on government websites.
"I don't believe that the problems in the city of Bell could have festered so long if this public policy had been enacted by the Legislature," Tom Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., told the lawmakers.
The proposal was opposed by representatives of counties and municipalities, who argued that it duplicates existing disclosure requirements. The state controller already requests and posts salaries on a state website, Lakewood Mayor Larry Van Nostran noted in a letter to lawmakers.
Newton said the controller's website is inadequate because it lists salaries by job title, not by name, and leaves out perks such as car allowances, loans and reimbursements for expenses.
State Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana), the author of the bill, SB 46, agreed, saying that without the identity of the officials and their full compensation information, the public cannot hold the officials accountable.
Eleven other anti-corruption measures, including one that would give the state controller more power to probe cities' financial records, were approved in one Assembly committee Wednesday and sent to another for further consideration.
Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said his bill on the controller, AB 229, is in response to audits commissioned by the city of Bell that failed to identify financial irregularities. Another Lara bill approved by the Assembly panel would require counties to certify that tax increases proposed by cities are within legal limits. That, he said, would "make it easier to determine where there is fraud, waste or mismanagement."
A few lawmakers said some of the bills would go too far, making sweeping, burdensome changes in response to the misconduct of only a few cities.
"The only thing worse than under-reacting is overreacting," said Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton). He voted against a measure that would bar contracts with managers in cities, counties, school districts and special districts from containing automatic raises higher than the cost of living and from renewing automatically.