By Ryan Lillis
Published: Friday, Jul. 30, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 30, 2010 – 7:41 am

City administrators from around the state scrambled Thursday to get ahead of the unfolding salary scandal in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell.

The League of California Cities took the unusual step of lambasting one of its own and said it would explore state legislation requiring that the salaries of the highest-paid employees in state and local government be made easily available to the public.

Representatives of the League met in downtown Sacramento to discuss crafting the salary legislation, as well as setting statewide guidelines for public executive pay that would be based on experience and the size of jurisdictions. Ultimately, salaries for top administrators are decided by city councils and other elected boards.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that the Bell city manager was paid nearly $800,000, making him the highest-paid government manager in the nation. The police chief earned more than $450,000 and an assistant city manager made $376,288. All three have resigned, and both the Los Angeles district attorney and the state attorney general’s office are investigating.

“For city managers, it’s kind of like the Rodney King beating,” said Winters City Manager John Donlevy, who is on the League’s city manager executive committee. “It had to be one of the most reprehensible things done. City managers are charged with being the fiduciary of the public trust. Cities have to live within their means and I don’t care how good (they are), nobody should be paid close to a million dollars.”

The scandal in the city of 37,000 comes at a vulnerable time for California cities. Trust in public officials has eroded, particularly when the discussion turns to those with high salaries. In addition, as cities and counties use layoffs and wage concessions to balance their budgets, labor unions are accusing public agencies of protecting bloated management staffs at the expense of the rank and file.

And local officials, pleading poverty, have spent the last year complaining that the state is balancing its budget on their backs by taking redevelopment money and other funding.

Complicating matters is the calendar: In just over three months, many local governments will ask voters to raise taxes and fees to bolster public services in the wake of cutbacks.

“There’s a lot of nervousness on the part of cities right now on their abilities to ask the voters to help,” said Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive officer of the Public Policy Institute of California. “And that will lead local governments to want to distance themselves from anything that might hint at a poor fiscal decision.”

City leaders are aware of the tension.

“We’re talking at the moment about one jurisdiction among thousands in this state,” said Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities. “We’re talking about a few who unjustly enriched themselves at the expense of many … it would be extremely unfortunate if everybody was branded with this particular brand.”

Even as League officials undertake a survey of the state’s highest-paid local administrators, they maintain that the situation in Bell is an isolated incident. The median pay for top city and county executives in the Sacramento region is roughly $208,000, according to a Bee analysis.

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