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Residents Committee Recommended to Examine High Cost of Santa Monica City Employee Compensation  

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 18, 2017 -- Faced with rising complaints about salaries and benefits for Santa Monica City employees -- among the highest for California municipalities -- staff is recommending a temporary panel of residents be created to examine the contentious issue.

The ad hoc committee would be comprised of five residents and assist “in critically reviewing and objectively considering” employee compensation, according to the report by Gigi Decavalles-Hughes, the City’s finance director, released on Monday.

The panel would work with the City’s Audit Subcommittee -- which will take up the recommendation at its April 20 meeting -- but would not be given voting power.

Instead, the role of the panel would be to “ask questions of staff and the Internal Auditor and make suggestions regarding scope, initial findings and the final report,” Decavalles-Hughes said.

The audit subcommittee’s five members (three City Council members and two residents/CPAs) need to agree to send the recommendation to the full council for a vote.

If approved, City Manager Rick Cole -- who has also suggested the idea of forming a residents panel -- would appoint the five members. Those interested are required to formally apply

The question now is whether critics of the City's high employee compensation will be content with the limitations placed on the ad hoc committee.

Trust among them is limited. Monday’s report acknowledges the problem.

“Staff has spoken to community members who sought assurances that the study would be objective and thorough,” Decavalles-Hughes said.

It also comes at a time when three of the audit panel’s five seats will soon be up for grabs -- and City critics are calling for a chance to serve.

The subcommittee chair, Nimish Patel, recently announced he would be resigning due to work obligations. An accountant and former school board member, his term is set to expire in 2019.

Terms for two other members expire in June. The seats are held by Council Member Tony Vazquez and Frances Ellington, a CPA and city resident. All members are appointed by the full council.

No applications for subcommittee seats are on file with the City so far.

In any case, news of the Thursday meeting caught critics off guard.

Originally scheduled for today, the subcommittee’s meeting had been canceled because, officials noted, it conflicted the City Council’s regular meeting.

The subcommittee was not scheduled to meet again until August, when notice of two new special meetings was posted on the City website last week.

The first was Thursday’s session, which is at 6 p.m. in the SMi Training Room, 330 Olympic Drive, 2nd Floor (Plaza Level).

It was designated “special” because its time and location is different from regular meetings, at 7 p.m. in the Ken Edwards Center, said Natalie Acosta, the City’s liaison to the subcommittee.

The second meeting added to the list is now on June 15, a month after the proposed ad hoc committee would have been selected.

“At that time, the Subcommittee would confirm the final scope of the audit with the input of the ad hoc committee and staff,” Decavalles-Hughes said in her report.

“Staff anticipates that the Subcommittee will consider initial findings at its October 17, 2017 Regular Meeting, and receive the final report at its January 16, 2018 Regular Meeting,” she said.

No time or location is yet posted.

Meanwhile, the Audit Subcommittee is expanding the scope of its initial staff compensation review by Moss Adams, LLP, the City’s internal auditor.

Monday’s report noted the review will look now at the “methodology used for setting compensation levels, a comparison of wages and benefits across peer cities, the factors that determine the number of staff providing services, and the use of overtime by public safety employees.”

Created almost two years ago to probe City Hall spending and increase transparency, the Audit Subcommittee was mostly ignored until it became the focus of Santa Monica’s critics in recent months.

They include neighborhood groups, the slow-growth group Residocracy and two community-based watchdog organizations -- the Coalition for a Livable City(SMCLC) and Transparent Santa Monica.

The review is budgeted to cost no more than $210,000 and will be carved out of the existing biennial budget -- more than $1 billion -- and can dip further in if needed in the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

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