Beverly Hills ‘Salary Scandal’ Hits the Local Papers

BH Courier logoThe two newspapers that cover the Beverly Hills market won’t ever be confused with rough-and-tumble  journalism. Equal parts local news, City Hall mouthpiece, society pages, and venue for obligatory publication of official announcements, both the Beverly Hills Courier and the Beverly Hills Weekly seem to hew to a winning formula: offer something for everyone, make no waves, and most important, publish a tangible product and drop it on every doorstep, gratis. When the Courier succeeded in wresting public salary data for municipal employees and published it over two weeks (complete with benefits accorded), there was something of a media scrum as both local papers chimed in on what’s called the ‘salary scandal.’

BH Weekly Investigation starAnd a scandal it is. A subsequent back of the envelope analysis by the Weekly showed that in nearly every major administrative category, Beverly Hills employees are paid much higher than employees in the private sector  – indeed beyond the range of salaries for comparable job responsibilities – and more per capita than comparable cities. That turns on its head the conventional practice of paying private-sector employers more, while public employees enjoy more job stability and sometimes greater benefits (pensions, etc.).

Indeed our city covers both the employer and employee pension cost, too, meaning employees pay in nothing; and it provides paid vacation AND two Mondays or Fridays off per month with pay. Sick time can be cashed out – and that contributes right to the pension too.

I kept this in mind this Sunday as I rode around the Golden Triangle looking for the city’s sole contribution to making our city habitable for cyclists:  20 bike racks installed several years ago as part of a Golden Triangle remodel. Now, these racks are sleek and attractive, but they don’t say ‘bike rack.’

It’s worth noting that the only subsequent bike improvement undertaken by our  ad-hoc bike committee has been the preparation of that map, and the application of a new decal intended to make them recognizable as bike racks. (Those are the only deliverables to date from our now-one-year-old ad-hoc bike committee.)

Bad Map But Generous Planner Pay

Map of existing Beverly Hills bike racksI’ve only ever seen a few of these racks so I had a ride around with Transportation’s recently produced map of rack locations (at right). Though produced by a transportation planner, the map was hardly usable. Aside from counting several racks that don’t exist, the map indicates location so generally as to vary from actual location by a block in either direction.

The planner earns $106,672 annually in salary, receives a car allowance of $300/mo (for what exactly?) and an additional 300 hours of ‘earned’ paid leave per year. This planner enjoys benefits worth another $25,000/year, bringing total compensation to more than $130,000/year.

Cyclists deserve a usable map of facilities as is provided by other cities, so I’ve taken the liberty to note the actual bike rack locations and will post my own map. Meaning free to the city taxpayers: no big salary, no benefits, no car subsidy and no cashout. My dime and my time.

It’s Not About Big-Government, Small-Government

It’s not about big or small government. Those are ideologies. It’s about functioning government. I want my government to work for me and I’m willing to pay for it. But of course I expect city government to actually work. When city policies affords  employees as many as 13 full weeks off, I feel frustrated because I’m trying to make change yet our city administrators work a three-quarter work week on average. They’re not there when you call. Or they may return a call only moments before departing on a Thursday, and if I miss it I’m out of luck until Monday. “There’s nobody there,” one paper said of City Hall.

With the salary data in hand, we can and should have a conversation about value: how employees are compensated and what services are actually on offer to residents. The city defended its practice of paying at the high end of the salary range (or more), according to the Weekly, by saying they’re competing for the best employees. Are they the best? Is there any kind of performance audit?

I can only go by my own anecdotal experience. For example, earlier this year I noticed that the library’s public search terminals were remembering a long list of previous patrons’ book searches. Now I’m a habitual cookie-clearer myself, and the library terminal’s setting to remember and display by default all those previous searches rubbed me wrong. Even worse, I could not delete my own searches or re-start a browser session if I wanted to. Bad practice that isn’t in accord with the American Library Associations privacy guidelines, which address the importance of making patron searches confidential and even identify encryption as a means of doing so effectively. As the ALA observes:

“The possibility of surveillance, whether direct or through access to records of speech, research and exploration, undermines a democratic society.”

So I thought that once it was brought to the library’s attention, it would be a simple matter to flip a switch to allow a browser reset. How wrong I was! Months after I had made the case to the library’s top administrator (salary: $165,000 + 25,000 cashed-out leave + $48,000 benefits AND that additional 300 hours of ‘earned’ leave) with plenty of follow-up did the library’s IT contractor finally flip that switch. Today the terminals reset after a public browsing session, as they should.

I also noticed that the library’s due date notifications by email were tardy, coming several days after materials were due and after fines had already begun to accrue.

But every other library I’ve ever used has enabled notifications before the due date. How difficult could it be to flip this switch? More two months after I requested a better notification system (and after multiple follow-ups by email and phone) was the circulation manager persuade administration to flip that switch. Hallelujah!

And last there was this problem: the library website redirected users after a few minutes of inactivity to the CBS Interactive search page (search.com). Yes, the electronic billboard folks were profiting off of our library’s redirects!

Normal practice is to redirect to the library’s homepage or the city’s gateway. But our library was not respecting normal practices. So I asked the library administration to look into it. Over back-and-forth emails over the course of a month, the administrator who handles library back-end processing ($149,000 + $2000 cashed-out leave time + $45,000 in benefits AND an additional 300 hours of ‘earned’ leave) wouldn’t recognize the problem. Even when the site’s page source code was highlighted showing the redirect.

This was a no-brainer switch to flip – again, a tweak in the code that I make for my clients within 24 hour. For the Beverly Hills library administration, it was impossible. Ultimately the library implemented a new front-end for the online catalog and the problem went away. But that improvement came more than a year after the library embarked on the new catalog effort, and implementation is not great even today.

And Then There’s the Bike Facility ProblemFoothill Boulevard garage bike rack

High salaries and rich benefits don’t explain why there’s no money in City Hall for a few $200 bike racks. Take a look at the rack that cyclists are provided at the city’s garage near the city-owned Foothill building (right). Not only is it clearly substandard, but it’s placed in the corner as far as possible from the building. Who would want to cycle to work when the city provides such a disincentive? Needless to say, the Foothill building features no bike racks of any kind anywhere.

Santa Monica has been installing racks by the score all over town, yet our Parking Services Director ($161,000/yr + $19,000 cashout + $39,000 in benefits) suggested this past Spring that money might indeed be the obstacle. Our parking fund is $2.4 million in the red providing for cars, but we cant provide a bike rack or two?

Civic Center bike rack - tilted and insufficientOur city can’t even furnish decent bike racks at the Civic Center. Cyclists must continue to use crap rack installed on tilted pavement. The new racks on offer for the library were requested, what, two years ago? We’re now told maybe by the start of the school year. And the city isn’t even paying – it’s the Friends of the Library that coughed up (thank you).

City Hall is Not Delivering for the Cycling Community

At a time when the city passes on a bike rack program and defers action on lanes, signage, cycling safety education, and any and all bike improvements, we two-wheeled road users should be asking what we’re getting from our administration in City Hall exactly. And we should demand more.

The Courier found in the data what it was looking for: an evident mismatch between compensation and local government performance. Perhaps that’s why our disproportionately well-paid top administration battled to keep salary and benefit figures secret. We owe the Courier and the Weekly a debt for (respectively) making the data public and for putting those salary figures into context by providing job descriptions and industry salary ranges.