It started some months ago with a series of anonymous messages about “Bell-esque” salaries and benefit plans received by several high-ranking City of Fontana officials, along with other accusations of malfeasance within the city. Receiving such messages about government officials is almost a daily occurrence, but unlike so many that would make any conspiracy theorist proud, these were literate, well-organized and backed up with details. They warranted further investigation.
The California Public Records Act allows for anyone to inspect and copy public records, including salary and benefit information. I sent a request to the city clerk for Fontana and received back this link to the information on the city’s website, which provides some salary information and employment contracts.
At a salary of more than $283,000 a year, Fontana City Manager, Ken Hunt, is among the highest paid city managers in San Bernardino County, a county known for corruption among elected officials and a county where former Bell City Manager, Robert Rizzo, honed his skills in two of its cities. But, $283,000 hardly compares to what Rizzo earned in Bell.
To the average citizen who knows little about the backroom dealings in local government, it would likely seem the City of Fontana is being transparent about the compensation packages for its executives. For those of us who have personally watched as elected and appointed officials figure out new ways to feather their nests at taxpayer expense, all the while claiming it is in the best interests of the citizens they represent, we know better.
Let me give you a few examples of costs that often go unreported.
Government-issued cars are one of the most lucrative benefits for a government employee. Not only do officials get their gas paid to drive to and from work, maintenance and insurance is paid. When then-San Bernardino County Supervisor Paul Biane was in office, the County of San Bernardino paid for the Mexican insurance policy so that he could drive his county ride to his vacation home in Mexico. Yes, government-issued vehicles are often used for grocery shopping, family vacations, taking the kids to school and everything else the rest of us have to do with our own vehicles on our own dime.
Pensions and retirement plans are another area where there are often unreported costs to the taxpayers. Sure, Fontana employees have to pay part of their pension cost. But exactly how much does the city (taxpayer) pay? The city doesn’t pay just three percent of the employees’ cost, it also pays its own cost, which is substantial. Government executives often also receive costly matches for various deferred compensation and retirement plans that can add many thousands of dollars to the entity’s annual budget and an official’s pocket.
Other hidden perks can include government-paid executive gym memberships, life insurance policies, executive physicals, death and dismemberment policies, long-term disability premiums, short-term disability or supplemental disability insurance, eye care plans and mental health plans. The list goes on and on and can add tens of thousands of hidden dollars to an employee’s annual compensation plan.
So, how does one find out what an employee or public official is really costing us? Well, after recently receiving additional anonymous information about Hunt and his personal assistant (or secretary or executive assistant but NOT assistant city manager), Amy Colbrunn, I decided to try again. My CPRA request read:
“I am requesting the complete salary and benefit information for Fiscal Year 2012/2013 and 2013/2014 for City Manager Ken Hunt and his assistant “Amy.” By virtue of this request I would like a breakdown of all benefits, including but not limited to, car allowance, insurance premiums, retirement and 401K contributions, cell phone allowance, vacation, sick leave, holiday, administrative and personal leave allowances.”
The photo at the top of this story is what the city clerk’s office sent in response to my request. Did they comply with the request? As with CPRA requests sent to many public agencies, they complied in the narrowest of interpretations. Does the above information give us the whole picture? I doubt it. For one, it does not really tell us the total going into the retirement plan. Nor does it tell us what Hunt’s vehicle costs taxpayers.
And that leads me to the purpose of writing this story. There is an art to getting public information . . . that information the California Legislature has said we have the right to but that local agencies keep from us every step of the way. They know they can get away with it because most of us don’t have the time, money or inclination to file a lawsuit to get the information we are entitled to under state law.
Is that by design? Probably. If the state legislature really wanted us to have access, they would enact a law that required every public agency keep up-to-date, detailed and accurate information online to provide that “transparency” they all claim to provide, which is about as transparent as a brick wall.
Over the next few weeks I will write a series of articles about the roadblocks various agencies put up to keep the public out of their business, whether it is public records or public meetings. I hope to include interviews with experts in the field and some tips to make it easier, or at least less frustrating, to obtain public records.
In the meantime, I will also be submitting additional CPRA requests to the City of Fontana to get complete compensation/cost information on Ken Hunt and his girl-Friday, Amy Colbrunn. The citizens of Fontana have the right to know what these two are costing them and if they are getting enough bang for their buck.
And the rest of us have the right to know what our public officials really cost us without having to enact a new law or file a lawsuit.