A popular Christmas card that made the rounds in Southern California this year featured Bell, California’s $800,000-a-year defamed city manager Robert Rizzo in a Santa hat accompanied by lyrics to be sung to the tune of Silver Bells:City sidewalks, broken sidewalks Built in felonious style In the air There’s a feeling Of chiseling!
Children gagging, People razzing, Viewing trial after trial, And in every packed courtroom you’ll hear
Rizzo’s Bell, Rizzo’s Bell It’s scandal time in the city. Ching! Ka-Ching! Hear them ring! Soon he will be put away.
There’s a second verse, too; you can view the full card on my company’s Facebook page. I may have to start a series of these cards, since the public employee pay and benefit scandals never seem to end in California. The latest broke just after New Year’s when it was learned that Santa Ana’s departing city attorney walked — or possibly was fired — from his job, taking with him $191,699 in payments for unused time off and vacation days.
Two things in city attorney Joe Fletcher’s contract catch one’s eye: First, he negotiated it for himself. It’s hard to imagine a more damning example of civic incompetence than this, where a well-paid city manager ($262,272 a year plus benefits) and a supposedly responsible city council allowed an attorney — an attorney! — to negotiate his own contract. Second, he wrote it and they approved it so his vacations and sick days would accrue from 1983 forward. The trouble with that is that Fletcher didn’t start working for Santa Ana until 1996, 13 years later. The city has not yet provided an explanation for why Fletcher’s contract was approved with that provision in it — but my guess goes something like this: No one really got around to reading it; they just trusted the advice of their, um, city attorney on the matter.
When the Voice of OC asked Santa Ana city manager Dave Ream how it came to be that Fletcher legally — but hardly morally — left with almost $200,000 of the city’s money in his pocket, his response said it all: “You got me.” That’s about all you can expect to get for a measly $262,272 a year nowadays. It’s no wonder that Santa Ana’s budget is $6.5 million in the red.
Things only get worse when you look at Sacramento. Arnold Schwarzenegger left office with a rash of last-minute appointments that boggle the mind. Two termed-out Republican state senators who broke ranks with the GOP and voted for tax increases received $128,000-a-year positions on the California Parole Appeals Board. Vicki Marti, who’s married to Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff Susan Kennedy (Proposition 8 notwithstanding), got two appointments, to the Occupational Health and Safety Appeals Board and the California Medical Commission, at a combined annual salary of $167,940 — presumably in return for keeping Kennedy’s notorious hard edge buffed down a bit for the governor’s sake. There are plenty more examples; suffice it to say that most Californians thought high-paid, do-little boards like these would disappear when Schwarzenegger promised to “blow up the boxes,” but instead, they endured so he could practice some outrageous last-minute cronyism at taxpayer expense.
Californians aren’t alone in their rising ire at what’s going on with our money. New York’s public workers are doing their part to prove the ludicrousness of the term “public servant,” as multiple investigations are now probing alleged work slow-downs during the recent blizzard that put the unions’ and “workers’” selfish interests ahead of the peoples’ real needs.
Reformers can talk about making changes to pension formulas, or about begging a percentage point or two of concessions out of unions the next time contract talks come up, but that won’t come close to satisfying an electorate angered by endless examples of taxpayer abuse by government workers. When a city attorney is allowed to write his own contract, or a city manager negotiates a new union contract that also covers his own pension, or union officials wantonly ignore their contractual responsibilities while demanding more and more, what is going on if not a series of criminal conspiracies? The thought that we can’t toss out a single one of these ridiculous public employee labor and benefit deals because they’re legal contracts is ridiculous; many of these are not legal contracts, but rather fraudulent documents that are the result of illegal collusion between parties that both benefitted. They shouldn’t be tweaked; they should be tossed.
What we need isn’t legislators passing laws to make the next generation of public union contracts slightly less offensive; no, what we need is some prosecutors bold enough to bring criminal conspiracy charges against a bunch of government officials and public union leaders under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. After all, isn’t that exactly what we’re seeing from Bell to Brooklyn?
Then, we’ll just have to find some judges who aren’t covered by similar labor contracts and pension deals.
Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.