Accountability and Transparency in Local Government
Bill Bogaard is mayor of the City of Pasadena and immediate past president of the League. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The City of Bell’s former City Manager Robert Rizzo recently pleaded no contest to more than 60 counts of public corruption. The Los Angeles Times exposed Rizzo and a handful of former appointed and elected City of Bell officials in 2010 for significant breaches of public trust, including inexcusable compensation practices and hiding information from the residents they were entrusted to serve.
Residents throughout the state were rightfully outraged — as were the League and its 467 member cities. We knew that these were the isolated acts of a few individuals and not at all reflective of the high standards of accountability and transparency that most cities strive to provide.
That’s why in the wake of the Bell scandal the League condemned the breach of public trust and took steps to facilitate public access to important city government information, such as the salaries of city managers and elected officials. In addition, the League worked to provide all California cities with the tools, guidelines and resources to become even more open and responsive to their residents.
At the same time, the League and its local government partners assisted Bell’s residents and newly elected leaders in reforming their government and rebuilding public trust.
Our goal is to help inform the public about the resources available to them and reinforce California cities’ commitment to be open, transparent and accountable to the residents we serve. Some of the tools available for cities and the general public include:
- Local government employee compensation database. While conducting its own survey of city manager salaries that it subsequently published, the League also worked with the state controller to develop an online statewide database that discloses all local government employee salaries and benefits, including those of thousands of cities, counties, special districts, school districts and others at http://publicpay.ca.gov.
- “Open Government” website for local governments, media and residents. The League website offers a page (www.cacities.org/opengovernment) that provides vital information on local government transparency and accountability. In addition to the public employee compensation information, this portal includes information on open meeting laws (the Brown Act), open records laws (the Public Records Act), transparency laws and resources for local government officials and staff, the media and residents.
- City manager salary guidelines. The League developed and published City Manager Compensation Guidelines, which combines best practices with an overview of the provisions of state law. The guidelines are a tool for city councils to ensure that compensation is fair and reasonable and within the range of comparable positions elsewhere in the community and state. The guidelines can be found at www.cacities.org/opengovernment.
- Ethics training for local officials. The League and the nonprofit Institute for Local Government (ILG) provide frequent ethics training, guidance and resources related to public service ethics and transparency for local officials.
ILG and city officials from throughout California also banded together in the wake of the Bell scandal to help the city’s residents reclaim their city government, understand its budget and reform its organizational structure. A series of public workshops and community hearings was conducted in which expertise was provided on the fundamental principles of local government (meeting procedures and so forth) and other basic information essential to effective governance. Moreover, a bilingual community forum was held in which the new Bell City Council engaged the community in setting the city’s 2012–13 budget.
The City of Bell has made great strides in the past two years. Its residents elected an entirely new city council that is more diverse and reflective of the community. The city council and staff have restored structural balance to the city budget, which had been severely undermined by poor fiscal management. Three independent audits of city spending were conducted in the past year alone. The city’s debt has been cut in half. The city’s website was completely revised and now includes all city employee and elected officials’ salary information, the city’s checkbook and budgets, all contracts and other municipal information. The Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization that analyzes state and local government transparency, gave Bell a Sunny Award in 2013. These awards honor the most transparent government websites in the nation.
The events in the former Bell city government provided a dramatic reminder of the need for both ethical management and active citizen involvement in government. The League and ILG continue to help cities respond to this need by developing tools and resources to assist local officials in ensuring maximum transparency and accountability.
For additional information and links to related resources, see below.