Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 10:42 p.m.

Paul C. Malone launched his career in San Marcos government as a planner in 1981, when the North County city was still a teenager. He earned his way to city manager and is now paid almost $5,000 a week in base pay.

But his overall compensation stretches far beyond the $242,652 the city reports as his annual salary.

Retirement and deferred-compensation, insurance premiums, a car allowance and other benefits push Malone’s total cost to the city past $408,000 a year, making him one of the higher-paid city officials in San Diego County, according to initial results of a survey by The Watchdog.

The public has a complicated relationship with those who govern, perhaps never more so than when it comes to pay. Revelations last month that city officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell were paid three and four times the norm sparked outrage across California and stoked a fresh debate over public salaries.

Today, The Watchdog is announcing a new project that will examine the earnings of top leaders at government agencies in San Diego County more broadly than ever before.

The idea is to look behind the stated pay of city managers, school superintendents, board officials and other administrators to measure the full breadth of compensation. Initial findings show that managers typically receive benefits and allowances that add tens of thousands of dollars to their annual base pay.

The add-ons come in the form of paid leave, life- and health-insurance payments, retirement benefits, auto allowances and housing loans, among others.

In times of intense pressure on state and local budgets, every tax dollar counts and an open conversation about executive pay is critical, good-government advocates say.

“What our public officials are compensated comes directly from tax dollars and the public deserves to know what our tax dollars are paying for,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. “People can use the salaries of public officials as a gauge to determine whether their government is working.”

The effort began Wednesday, with a blanket request to all 17 city managers in San Diego County and the mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders.

The project will continue over coming days and weeks as similar requests are filed with school districts, water and fire boards, special districts and regional government agencies. The Watchdog will report findings as they come in, reviewing salaries and benefits with experts and citizens.

A handful of city managers responded to the e-mailed request within hours, providing their employment terms and copies of current contracts. Others answered questions but provided no documents. Four cities — Del Mar, Escondido, National City and Solana Beach — have yet to respond at all.

Officials from Chula Vista, Oceanside and Vista said they intend to provide information or documents but so far have not.

Coronado City Manager Blair King, a career administrator who ran Imperial Beach in the 1990s but assumed his current post less than three months ago, disclosed his $193,000 salary documented with his contract and latest pay stub within 24 hours.

“Coronado is doing better than many other communities but it is our obligation to spend every tax dollar as wisely as we can,” he said in a follow-up interview. “We want to be transparent. The public needs to know how much people are being compensated.”

King said his daughter is studying journalism in college and he reminds her that while she and her classmates examine the public’s right to government information, elsewhere on campus young people are learning good government.

“You have to feel you have something to offer to improve people’s lives,” King said. But, “I’m also fearful there are people who are attracted to this profession because of income or other reasons, without that public-service perspective.”

Chula Vista City Manager Jim Sandoval recapped job and service cuts over the past three years in explaining why his salary information might not be immediately forthcoming.

“The total cuts so far are over $40 million in value,” he wrote. “We are at the lowest per capita staffing levels in at least 23 years, yet we are still facing a $12.5 million deficit and likely further cuts.”

Carlsbad City Manager Lisa Hildabrand complied last week. She earns $217,200 a year in base pay, but also collects benefits worth $102,000 or so. She gets 37 paid days off a year, not including holidays.

Beginning Jan. 1, a clause in Hildabrand’s contract says she will earn $100 less in “total cash compensation” than the second-highest paid city manager in San Diego County, excluding the city of San Diego. The same paragraph spells out that “in no event” shall she earn less money than she did in the previous year.

Jerry Sanders, the former police chief who was elected San Diego mayor in 2005 and took on the previous duties of the city manager when the city converted to a strong-mayor form of government in 2006, is among the lowest-paid public servants to respond to The Watchdog survey so far.

According to the Mayor’s Office, Sanders earns $94,074 in base pay and another $20,085 in various benefits.

City salaries in San Diego County are nowhere near the pay in Bell, where city officials in June were revealed to have salaries far in excess of what most cities pay. The city manager was earning almost $800,000 a year in base pay alone and the police chief more than $400,000.

Ken Bunting, who runs the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri, said the more transparency in government salaries, the better.

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