Costa Mesa releases compensation report

COSTA MESA — Open-government advocates described the city’s Tuesday release of a 27-page document listing compensation packages for all City Hall employees as among the most detailed reports they’ve ever seen.

“They’re to be congratulated,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a Carmichael-based government watchdog group. “It’s far above average. I don’t have any basis for saying it is among the most detailed disclosures [in the country], but I suspect it probably is.”

The report, posted on the city’s website under the “Transparency” page, identifies 572 current and former full- and part-time employees mostly by name. It breaks down their overall compensation into columns for base pay, overtime, health benefits and pension costs, among other categories.

The data is for the 2010 calendar year, city officials said.

Council members’ compensation packages are also listed under the website’s Transparency section.

“I think a lot of people who follow local government were shaken by stories like Bell,” said Diana Lopez, senior editor for the Sunshine Review, a nonprofit advocate for state and local government transparency, referring to the L.A. County city’s case of municipal government corruption. “The pros of providing the information before citizens request it is it encourages citizens to become involved in their government as watchdogs … sites like this can expose waste and fraud.”

The report is a revamped version of an older 2010 compensation listing that the city had posted online, and draws on the same data. The new version explains what each category means, clearly delineates pay from pension costs, and even shows how city workers are compensated through special provisions like a car allowance.

“If someone for the first time looked at both of those reports, we think it’d be easier for the general public to understand what’s occurring, based on the new format,” city Chief Executive Tom Hatch said.

Francke suggested that the document’s publication could also help Costa Mesa’s employees.

“I suspect that part of the benefit of this degree of disclosure is the employees themselves for the first time have a sense of comparison among all employees as to how well they’re being compensated,” he said. “Part of the value is internally employees have a basis for judging whether the compensation practices are somehow out of kilter … or if so-and-so happens to be getting more overtime hours than anyone else.”

Employee groups, however, greeted the report’s release with skepticism.

“This gives the public a completely incorrect picture regarding compensation,” Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents about 200 Costa Mesa workers, said in an email. “If the city thinks this is irrelevant, then just ask the employees and their families who are making these significant contributions paycheck after paycheck.”

The report doesn’t show concessions that workers made in contract negotiations last fall, when they agreed to contribute more to their pensions because those didn’t take effect until this calendar year. Escalating pension costs have been at the heart of the city’s broad restructuring, which has fueled distrust among city employees and the City Council.

Employees also weren’t notified ahead of time about the report’s release, so any worker who wanted his or her name kept off for safety reasons wasn’t given a chance to do so, Muir said.

“Arguably, releasing employees’ names along with their salaries only remotely serves any public benefit at all,” she added. “Its most obvious effect is to further a political agenda that demonizes the city workforce and once again needlessly undermines the already fragile morale of employees who have now become accustomed to undeserved attacks by city-elected officials and executives, who should be their advocates.”

Some police officers’ names were left off, as they were in the previous report.

Costa Mesa Police Officer Assn. President Jason Chamness questioned why the city wanted to name any employees at all.

“We took that input and tried to balance the interest with the public’s right to know, based on what’s public information,” Hatch said. “Ultimately, what we fell back on what was public information and provided it as public information.”