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You can’t cover a political campaign – or even pay much
attention to one – without hearing someone say that government needs to run
more like a business.

Well, there’s at least one way where government seems to be doing
that. But it may make you wonder about the wisdom of the advice.

On our Editorial Page today, we’ve got a column by Nicholas D.
Kristof of the New York Times, who used
Lehman Bros. chairman Richard Fuld as a poster child for what’s wrong with CEO
compensation packages. Fuld, by Kristof’s estimate, was paid about $17,000 an
hour while a company founded before the Civil War collapsed in bankruptcy underneath
him. As Kristof points out, pay for a corporate CEO is negotiated with people
without much incentive to be tough at the bargaining table, and it’s often
based on what the CEO in the high-rise across the street gets.

So what’s that got to do with government?

More and more labor contracts are based on what the public
employee in a “comparable” agency gets. CHP gets a raise; prison guards tag
along. San Rafael PD gets a raise. Santa
Rosa needs one, too. A city manager or county executive
somewhere gets a $200,000 salary. It sets a new bar for everyone else. Elected
officials like the endorsements and campaign contributions and the volunteer
help provided by happy employee groups, so they don’t have much more incentive to
bargain hard than a hand-picked corporate board. That’s how we end up with 28 percent of Sonoma city employees making $100,000 a year.
It’s 23 percent in Rohnert Park and Petaluma and 21 percent in Santa Rosa, according to figures released this year. That’s in a county where the
median household income (often reflecting two-wage earners) is $53,645 in 2004, according to the latest U.S. Census data.

I think public employees are honorable people, who work hard,
provide important services and are often criticized unfairly. I was
raised by one. But it’s clear we’re in an era of tight finances when it’s tough to find more revenue. And the expense side of the public ledger is
mostly pay and benefits. So from top management to rank-and-file, it’s time to
take a close look.

That’s been a primary topic of conversation in our Editorial Board’s recent visits with candidates for
local office, though it’s been less predictable ideologically than you might
imagine. It’s the labor/progressive candidates for county supervisor who are
upset about benefit cuts imposed and sought by the board. But in Rohnert Park, where the
progressives hold a council majority, it’s the business/conservative candidates
who are critical of last year’s cutbacks to retirement benefits for public employees. In each instance, critics point more to the process than the outcome. However, it seems unlikely that any amount of process will leave people feeling good about getting less.

— Jim Sweeney