11:09 PM PDT on Sunday, August 1, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG and DUG BEGLEY
The Press-Enterprise

City managers and council members in the Inland region earn far less than their counterparts in Bell, a city that sparked a statewide outcry in recent weeks over excessive salaries.

A review of the 14 charter cities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties shows most city managers earning in the mid-$200,000 range and council members making less than $45,000 a year.

In Bell, a charter city of about 40,000 in Los Angeles, the city manager earned nearly $800,000 a year, and council members brought home close to $100,000.

The revelations have prompted multiple criminal investigations and have forced cities across the state to scrutinize how much they pay officials.

The League of California Cities condemned Bell and proposed legislation last week requiring cities to publish salary information on the Internet. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged cities to do the same.

“This was nuts,” said Robin Lowe, the league’s president and a Hemet councilwoman. “I have said a lot of things: Disgraceful. Unethical. Immoral.”

Desert Hot Springs City Manager Rick Daniels called Bell’s situation an “embarrassment to every public employee.”

The issue is particularly acute in charter cities, which have far greater leeway than general-law cities in setting the salaries of council members and top administrators.

Fewer than 400 voters approved a charter for Bell in a 2005 special election, allowing officials there to skirt a new state law limiting the amount of money general-law cities can pay council members.

Charters provide more local control over municipal affairs, meaning a city law on a local topic would trump the state measure on the same issue. Many have specific provisions on pay.

There are 119 charter cities among California’s 480 municipalities, including the 14 in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

$1 A MONTH AND UP

Of those Inland charter cities, none have salaries even remotely close to those paid to officials in Bell, a review shows.

In San Bernardino and Riverside counties, all 14 charter cities pay their city managers less than $300,000.

In most cases, the pay rate varies by a city’s population.

Riverside City Manager Brad Hudson makes the most, $294,525. He also runs the area’s largest city.

Needles, near the Arizona state line in San Bernardino County, pays William Way $127,000 to manage the city, where the population is less than 2 percent that of Riverside.

San Bernardino pays its city manger $278,600 a year, the second-most among charter cities. Next in line is Indian Wells at $262,500 a year.

City council-member pay varies significantly among the charter cities, where some report working long hours, though the positions are considered part time.

Palm Desert’s council has the highest base salary, $44,254 a year. Needles’ council earns the least — the city’s charter specifies each earns $1 per month.

“I just filed for another two-year term,” laughed Needles Mayor Jeff Williams. “I’m going to make $24 in this two-year term, and it costs me $25 to file (for the office) … We joke about our pay.”

Williams said the pay, set by the city’s charter, dates back decades. Changing it would require a vote of the people, something he said he would support with one caveat: “We’re trying to do the right things and move the city forward, but until we get a solar project or something … I don’t believe we’ve done anything to earn that.”

Salaries alone sometimes do not provide a full picture of elected officials’ compensation.

Many receive extra stipends for serving as board members on redevelopment agencies. The outside stipends are one way city council members in Bell were able to receive close to $100,000 a year.

The extra pay in the Inland region ranges from about $30 to $100 per meeting.

San Bernardino council members, for instance, receive a $50 monthly salary. But each rack up nearly $18,000 in annual benefits, such as health insurance and a $6,600 car allowance.

UPFRONT ABOUT IT

Hemet, where Lowe is a council member, is not a charter city. But she said elected officials must be upfront with residents about how much they earn and how much they pay top administrators.

Charters offer cities many advantages, such as greater protections from state government raiding local coffers, Lowe said.

But they also should be extremely careful and open — “so transparent they think we are made of tissue paper” — when it comes to pay, she said.

Chris McKenzie, the league’s executive director, said transparency is key. The league is helping draft legislation requiring cities to post council and city manager salary information on the Internet.

The legislation would apply to charter cities, he said.

“Today, all this information is public record but it is not affirmatively published,” McKenzie said by telephone.

“The most important tools we have to make sure government is operated in a professional and transparent manner are our open-government laws.”

‘NOT ALL CROOKS’

Palm Desert Councilwoman Jean Benson, who has served on the city board on and off since 1973, said council members don’t serve for the money.

“We all got into this because we wanted to make the city a good place to live,” she said.

Benson said most Coachella Valley cities started paying more once officials realized the work the growing area demanded from city leaders.

“I think all the cities kind of realized supervisors in the county got paid a decent salary, and the city council people were putting in the same work,” she said.

Six desert cities operate with a charter. With the exception of Desert Hot Springs, where elected leaders make $6,600 annually in addition to health and other benefits, the municipalities pay part-time council members more than $26,000 per year.

But that pales when compared to the $100,000 salaries Bell council members were collecting.

“We’re not all crooks,” Benson said. “There are some bad apples out there, but I think everyone I know is looking out for the city.”

Most concerns from Palm Desert residents are reserved for neon signs and landscaping around the community, she said.

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