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Cautious Hope for Proposed Citizen Committee on Santa Monica City Employee Costs  

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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 19, 2017 -- Just a day after being recommended, a novel new City proposal for a citizen committee to help delve into high compensation for City of Santa Monica employees was already getting early reviews -- and an applicant -- on Tuesday.

“It’s not optimal,” said Dominic Gomez, a member of Northeast Neighbors, a neighborhood association that, with others, has been sharply critical of City employee compensation -- among the highest for California municipalities ("Santa Monica Ranks Third in County for City Employee Compensation Costs, Survey Finds," June 23, 2016).

“It’s a start,” Gomez said.

In a report released Monday, the City’s head of finance said staff is calling for creation of a short-term ad hoc committee of five residents to assist in a review of employee pay and benefits ("Residents Committee Recommended to Examine High Cost of Santa Monica City Employee Compensation," April 18, 2017).

The recommendation goes to the City’s Audit Subcommittee during a recently scheduled -- and unexpected -- meeting on Thursday. It starts at 6 p.m. and is in the SMi Training Room, 330 Olympic Drive, 2nd Floor (Plaza Level).

Critics of City Hall spending are hoping to make a showing at Thursday's meeting.

Gomez, who said he will be there, is applying for a seat on the ad hoc committee, should it come to fruition.

As proposed, the committee’s power would be limited.

None of the members will have a vote, although they will help design the review into employee compensation, offering them an inside view of a process not usually accessible to the general public.

A life-long Santa Monica resident, Gomez has been the go-to member of Northeast Neighbors for the employee compensation issue for at least the last two years -- long before it was re-kindled during the bitterness that followed defeat of the slow-growth Measure LV in November.

He said what would be best for residents is a wholly independent and permanent committee to provide fiscal oversight of City Hall. But a temporary panel will do for now, he said.

Santa Monica’ City Hall “is almost impenetrable,” Gomez said. “The committee is a chance to see it at a more granular level. Change doesn't happen all at once. It comes increments."

Blessed with a biennial $1.1 billion budget, the City nonetheless is bracing for a recession, as are many local governments ("Forecast Predicts Slowing in Santa Monica Economy," January 26, 2017).

Santa Monica also faces $380 million in unfunded pension liabilities, a looming bill City Manager Rick Cole has said is among the City’s most fiscally threatening ("Santa Monica City’s Pension Debt Ranked Among Highest in California," February 22, 2017).

Cole -- who would appoint the five members of the citizens committee -- has had public disagreements with Gomez.

Gomez has dogged Cole on the matter of employee compensation, an issue which Cole has vowed to dig into and has discussed in meetings with groups like Northeast Neighbors ("'Serious Community Discussion' Needed on Santa Monica Employee Compensation, City Manager Says," January 6, 2017).

In November, Gomez fired off an 8:29 a.m. email to Cole, who had been hired in 2015.

“Instead of change residents and tax payers have been subjected to another greedy, self serving bureaucrat at the helm,” Gomez wrote.

“If one assesses the professional experience of our City Council Members I doubt any of them are proficient at reading much less managing a balance sheet. Surely this is a capability you should possess?

“In private industry salaries are dictated by independent market rates. How are salaries determined for the City of Santa Monica? What is Santa Monica's future pension liability? What percent of the general fund will go to salaries, benefits and pensions associated with the highest salaries in the state if not the entire country five years from now?

“Will future pension liabilities translate to increased taxes? Residents deserve answers to such critical fiscal matters,” Gomez concluded.

Cole responded at 12:07 the same day.

“Mr. Gomez: To borrow your phrase, in all due respect, addressing someone you have never met as “reckless” and a “greedy, self-serving bureaucrat” may seem appropriate for an open letter copied to the press, but I’m not sure it opens the door to a productive dialogue.

“Nor does claiming that our Police Chief makes more than the Police Chief in Los Angeles bolster the credibility of your concerns when that is incorrect as a matter of public record.

"I take seriously my fiduciary responsibilities as the City Manager of a municipal corporation with an annual budget of more than $650 million."

Cole added that the City is "more conservatively managed than more than 90% of California municipalities" and noted that it is "one of less than 10 cities in the State to have a long-standing AAA bond rating or its equivalent from all three major rating agencies."

Cole added, "I share your concern about the long-term sustainability of public sector pensions in this State" and invited Gomez to "discuss your concerns in a constructive forum.

"If, however, your primary goal is to score political points in the public arena, 'mission accomplished,'" Cole concluded.

Gomez said Tuesday that he does not expect his past with Cole to influence the City manager's decision on whether to appoint him to the ad hoc committee.

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