Monday, May 9, 2011

Compensation for Martinez elected officials too generous, says County Grand Jury

A recently released Contra Costa Grand Jury report found the Martinez City Council to be the third highest compensated governing body in Contra Costa.

Each of the five Martinez Council members are covered by city-paid health care insurance, despite the fact that three members hold full time positions with municipalities which also provide their employees with health insurance benefits. The City of Antioch is Council member Janet Kennedy’s employer, member Mike Menesini is employed by the City of San Francisco and Lara DeLaney works for Contra Costa County. Members Rob Schroder and Mark Ross work for their family businesses and each employ a handful of workers.

According to the Grand Jury’s tally, these insurance costs are the highest among all 19 Contra Costa cities and town surveyed in the report, to the tune of $71,416 in annual costs to the City of Martinez.

That’s $17,716 more in annual costs than the combined cost of Richmond’s seven-member Council.

In Elected Board Membership: Public Service or Public Employment?, the Jury points out that “while Martinez and Oakley both have similar populations of about 35,000, the Martinez City Council total compensation is $131,326, while Oakley’s is only $28,544.”

On Friday, Mayor Rob Schroder said in a phone interview that upon learning the results of the report early last week, he and City staff had “done some research” and determined that the figures provided by the Finance Department to the Grand Jury included compensation to two other elected officials as well, the City Clerk and City Treasurer.

“If you are comparing apples to apples, you need to subtract those two officials for the totals,” said Schroder, adding that compensation to the City Clerk and City Treasurer comes “pretty close to $40,000.”

The 2010-2011 Grand Jury looked in to elected officials’ paychecks and benefits “given the difficult economic challenges facing local government,” and pursuant to last year’s compensation scandal in Bell, California.

While commending the administrations and Councils of Orinda, Lafayette and the town of Moraga for receiving no remuneration for their service, “thus demonstrating the spirit of public service,”, the Jury sharply criticized the $2,419,169 spent county-wide during fiscal year 2009-2010 on various forms of compensation for all boards and councils, particularly at a time when public agencies are cutting spending and services.

“There are a large number of Boards and Councils that are being compensated amounts which may be viewed as exorbitant. Board and Council members are elected to serve their constituents. They set policy, oversee programs and services administered by professional employees and are accountable to the public for their actions. The Grand Jury believes the public should be aware of the compensation paid to their elected officials, what benefits are provided and whether the compensation structure indicates that the spirit of public service has changed to an entitlement of public employment,” reads the report.

According to the report, during each of the last two fiscal years, the City of Martinez paid its Council members a total of $46,200 to attend meetings, paid $71,416 in health insurance costs, $9,697 in pension and deferred compensation and $4,012 in travel and other job-related expenses.

“We have until July 25 to respond and we will craft a response that points out the alleged mistaken tallies,” said Schroder.

Asked why the City doesn’t follow the lead of Orinda, Moraga or Lafayette in a policy of no direct compensation for elected officials, Schroder replied, “It takes money to be a public official, and takes a lot of time,” he said, listing several events and meetings he attended in the past few days. “It takes away from my business, I don’t think it is improper for public officials to receive appropriate compensation.”

Because the City “has had a program of providing health insurance long before I was a member of the City Council,” said Schroder, “I don’t carry [insurance] with my company, that’s true. The benefit was offered to me in 1996 and mirrors the coverage that is offered to City employees.”

Council member Mark Ross said in a phone interview Friday that his company, owned by his parents, does not provide its employees with health coverage, so he is appreciative of the coverage provided to him as a Council member.

“It is a public service. No matter how many hours required, it’s my choice and my honor,” to serve on the Council, said Ross.

“Nobody signs up for the benefits that may be available, but those benefits are nice if you need them.”

After parsing its findings, the Grand Jury report made several recommendations to the cities and special districts investigated. Martinez was told it “should consider whether it would be appropriate to implement reductions of salary and meeting fee expenditures to bring them in line with other cities,” and “the policy of paying health care insurance costs for Council…members should be reviewed to determine whether this practice is appropriate.”

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