I dropped by Attorney General Jerry Brown's downtown Los Angeles press conference Monday morning, where he provided an update on his office's investigation into salary abuses and possible election fraud in the LA County city of Bell.
Brown, along with good government groups in Calfiornia, are strong advocates of returning more power to local governments. But the news from Bell, where local officials abused the public trust, makes the case for local control harder to make. I asked him two questions, and he gave two answers with real, new policy ideas.
Here they are:
1. MY QUESTION: An LA Times survey of Los Angeles County cities found that most pay their city managers more than Brown and other statewide elected officials make. (The county average in the survey was $209,000; the attorney general typically makes $184,000, but last December, the figure was reduced to just over $151,000 by the California Citizens Compensation Commission). Should that be the case?
Brown's answer: he didn't name a specific salary figure, but said there need to be caps on how much municipalities can pay their own employees in terms of salary and benefits, including pension. Enacting such a policy would be a tough slog, given expected opposition from city officials, but it's a worthwhile proposal.
2. MY QUESTION: How do you reconcile your commitment to local control with what went on in Bell?
Brown's answer: Bell's leaders made these salary decisions, which included a change in the city charter, in the dark and via at least one election where very few voters participated. The attorney general suggested that there should be state minimum standards for civic engagement -- in terms of participation by citizens and the number of voters -- in any election or decision in which salaries and pensions are set.
Together, Brown's proposals argue for greater local control -- but also more state standards to make sure such control harder to abuse. That combination of policies makes policy and political sense. Getting the details right will be difficult.