THE WEEK

Those are the two things Californians give their elected officials.

By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

July 18, 2010

Even a cursory look at events last week was enough to show the concept of “public service” being turned on its ear.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission took up the issue of elected officials getting freebie tickets, in the wake of investigations into Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s acceptance of tickets to dozens of sought-after events, sometimes from companies doing business with his administration.

On Wednesday, The Times reported that Bell, one of the poorest cities in the county, paid its city manager nearly $800,000 a year. Almost twice, that is, the annual salary of the president of the United States. Other city officials received generous rewards as well: The Bell police chief, who manages 46 employees, makes 50% more than the Los Angeles police chief, who manages about 13,000. The city is already under investigation by the district attorney for paying its part-time City Council members about $100,000 a year.

Bell’s city manager wasn’t exactly apologetic. “If that’s a number people choke on, maybe I’m in the wrong business,” Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo said, referring to his $787,637 annual salary.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, the fiscal year was two weeks old and no budget was in sight, as usual, as the Capitol engaged in its annual version of a really bad reality show. About the only visible action was the continued fight between the governor and the state controller over whether state workers should be paid minimum wage until the governor and the Legislature come to terms on a budget.

In the morass, the Field Poll came out last week with findings about how Californians view government. They were not surprising.

Percentage of Californians who approve of the job done by the Legislature: 16%

Percentage of Californians who approve of the job done by Congress: 19%

Percentage of Californians who approve of the job done by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: 22%.

The only politician to escape the state’s wrath, relatively speaking, was President Obama, who still wins the support of 54% of Californians, though that is well off his high point of 65%.

Villaraigosa and the city of Bell can be relieved that polling organizations have thus far not taken their number. But even if their circumstances and the state polling appear disconnected, in reality they are not.

In this season of discontent, with millions unemployed or losing their homes or sweating through a difficult recovery, largesse awarded to public officials affirms California’s distaste at all things, and all people, political, whether they are taking tickets or huge salaries or not.

The payment of high salaries or perks unavailable to the average voter “implies that public officials feel that they’re owed, in a sense, noblesse oblige, and they are better than anyone else,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “And the public is feeling that.”

There is no way to overstate the animosity with which Californians were greeting their public servants, if the Field Poll is any indication. Upset leaped off the page.

Only 33% of Californians said the country was on the right track, the gloomiest assessment in two years. But that assessment of the nation was rosy compared to views of home: only 13% felt California was going in the right direction.

In a show of political karma, Schwarzenegger’s woeful job approval rating was tied with the lowest reached by Gov. Gray Davis, the man he replaced in a recall — after a campaign in which the incoming governor argued that the outgoing one had lost the support of the people.

The state Legislature’s standing wasn’t the lowest it ever has been, but it was only three points off the bottom mark. The approval rating hasn’t been out of the teens in two full years.

In other countries, the combination of extreme upset at the economic downturn and dismay at public officials has led to voters tossing out incumbents. In California, that outcome is less likely. The reasons include the drawing of district lines, partisanship and the emphatic importance of money.

District lines, last redrawn after the 2000 Census, so strongly protected incumbents that only a few have been defeated in legislative or congressional races since then. (After the current census, lines will be redrawn by a citizens’ commission under terms of a ballot measure that sought to create more competitive seats.)

To read entire story, click here.