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Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole Takes on Critics -- Again  

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

March 23, 2017 -- Call it Cole vs Critics: Round Three. Rick Cole, Santa Monica's sometimes outspoken-to-a-fault city manager, has taken to his City blog to issue a written blow to “those who pose” as government watchdogs for allegedly trying to “discredit,” rather than “reform,” their targets.

Cole, who has been at odds with equally outspoken City Hall critics almost since arriving in Santa Monica in 2015, jabs at a source used by many critics of employee pay, benefits and pensions -- among the highest in California cities ("Santa Monica Ranks Third in County for City Employee Compensation Costs, Survey Finds," June 23, 2016).

His opponent: Transparent California, an organization that gathers and posts online government payroll information on pay, benefits and pensions of all employees in the state’s public sector.

The organization’s databases (found at transparentcalifornia.com) are routinely used by critics and news outlets. And Santa Monica has been on the spot several times as a result.

Transparent California describes itself as a “free market think tank” and project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), a conservative non-profit group founded in 1991.

“It proudly boasts of its ‘innovative campaigns to help union members opt out of union membership,'” Cole wrote in his March 9 post to “The Long View.”

Its founder, he notes, is Judy Cresanta, a longtime Republican National Committee member who has cited as her inspirations Jeff Coors of politically conservative Coors Brewing and the Castle Rock Foundation; Bill Bennett, former secretary of education under President Reagan, and Morton Blackwell of the Council for National Policy.

“There is nothing sinister about these associations -- it is a free country,” Cole said. “What is concerning though is a lack of ‘transparency’ about the motives of Transparent California’s misleading attacks on public sector compensation.”

Robert Fellner, research director of California Transparent, was not impressed.

"Transparent California empowers residents with a better understanding of how their tax dollars are being spent by providing complete and accurate information on public employee compensation,” he said in an email to the Lookout News on Wednesday.

“Government officials who respond to transparency of this type in an elaborate 'shoot the messenger' style campaign only beg the question: Why are they so uncomfortable with this information being made public?”

Cole’s most recent post marks the third time he has used his blog site to make his case for employee pay and benefits, although it’s a topic he has also taken heat over in community group meetings ("Santa Monica City Manager's Comments Anger More Community Activists," January 10, 2017).

But Cole’s harshest critics were not sold on Cole's most recent blog, which the City posted on the Facebook page of Residocracy, a slow-growth group critical of City Hall on issues that include employee compensation.

"Here's a good line, 'Let’s not forget that the vast majority of them are doing the best they can within the limitations we impose on public institutions'. . . This is "limited?!" commented Drew Traglia.

Cole’s comments are not unusual within the public sector, especially since Transparent California’s databases (which come from the state) contain full employee names, their work titles and wages, benefits and pension costs.

All of the information is public record and legal to publish, although Transparent California makes it unusually easy to access and to tally such items as total payroll or pension cost.

Some information gleaned from the databases has been inaccurately reported (although not by the Lookout), such as confusing total pay with total compensation, which is pay plus benefits.

“Sometimes they are right in their concerns,” Cole said of those who scrutinize the public sector. “Like any human endeavor, government is far from perfect.

"But in relentlessly publicizing every public sector shortcoming, they potentially undermine the very institutions of public governance that create the conditions for free markets to prosper.”

“Criticism of government is fair game," Cole said, but slashing and often unfair attacks can play to -- and can inflame -- mistrust and cynicism about public institutions generally.”

Cole has a contentious relationship with a collection of Santa Monica activists, City Hall watchdog groups and neighborhood associations.

They are angry with the City’s development plans, its on-again, off-again effort to close the municipal airport permanently and lately have re-focused on the long-time issue of employee pay.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) has strong ties to the GOP and that several of its co-founders were prominent party members. NPRI is a 501c3 non-partisan, nonprofit research group founded solely by Judy Cresanta, a longtime Republican National Committee member .


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