Let the sun shine

Council shines light on employee compensation, police officers’ contract proposal

Michael Jones has been critical of excessive city-employee compensation. He wanted more sunshine on payroll allocations, and he’s successfully lobbied city management to make that happen.

Michael Jones has been critical of excessive city-employee compensation. He wanted more sunshine on payroll allocations, and he’s successfully lobbied city management to make that happen.

photo by Brittany Waterstradt

Whether he knew it or not going in, fiscal watchdog Michael Jones, a Chico dentist and regular attendee at City Council meetings, was coming out a winner during the panel’s meeting Tuesday evening, Oct. 21.

Jones was at that regular meeting to advocate for transparency when it comes to the compensation of city employees. The issue was a discussion item on the agenda, but about midway through dialogue at the dais, Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin informed the council that the city, prior to the meeting, had posted a link titled “city financial data” on the city website’s homepage that leads to that very information. It includes not only employee salary data but also benefits and other compensation, broken into five elements of cost, plus total compensation.

For his part, Jones, who appeared content with the city’s effort, wanted citizens to have easy access to information outlining how payroll is allocated.

“The basic idea is that to make decisions on how we run the city and allocate our scarce resources, we need to know where the 80 percent of the general fund that goes to employee compensation—where the money goes,” he said, prior to Constantin’s revelation.

Jones said he was spurred to seek that data as a way to counter the contention of the Chico Police Officers’ Association’s president, Peter Durfee, that CPOA members had taken 18 percent in cuts over the last three years. He said he needed the numbers for individual employees to determine that they in fact had not taken such concessions, though the department as a whole may have.

Jones wasn’t the only citizen to support the plan. John Salyer, a fellow regular attendee, favored it and noted that benefits are an important factor when it comes to transparency. Interestingly, Chris Bolshazy, of the Trades and Crafts Unit of the Service Employees International Union, also voiced support for Jones’ idea. He endorsed it in the interest of showing that members of his group make modest salaries.

Bolshazy was particularly concerned with signs around town charging that the average salary for city of Chico employees is $106,000 annually, and said that posting the numbers would make it clear that’s not true. Jones later clarified that the signs are his and that $106,000 per year is indeed the average, but for total compensation, not just salaries.

At the tail-end of discussion, Mayor Scott Gruendl suggested the Finance Committee take up the issue should there be requests from the public to make changes to the data.

Also on the agenda was the “sunshining” of the CPOA’s initial proposal as the city heads into negotiations for a new contract with the union. The current contract expires at the end of the year. In a message to the council, the CPOA writes that the “proposal is intended to begin the bargaining process and introduce several ideas that the [union] believes can create a better environment within the City of Chico Police Department, specifically the Department’s ability to retain and recruit police officers… Wording is NOT final and will be edited to reflect any changes prior to submission to the City in formal bargaining.”

The proposal was submitted on Sept. 24 and calls for a three-year contract that would begin Jan. 1. It includes a 5 percent salary increase each year, sets training pay at $18 an hour, and reinstates a policy allowing police employees to cash out unused holiday and vacation time. Officers would be paid overtime for working holidays and the city would pay for dental insurance as well as Federal Income Contribution Act taxes. The proposal, if adopted, would increase the city’s costs by about $5 million over the three years.

The matter was brought up after business from the floor, the part of the meeting that allows citizens to address any topic. Stephanie Taber, another regular at council meetings, asked if there could be public comment on CPOA’s initial proposal. She was told yes, but that the council itself could not discuss the specifics because negotiations on employee contracts are carried out during closed-session meetings.

Donna Shary asked why the union’s proposal was being sunshined, when the city’s response was not. Doing so, she said, made no sense and seemed premature. She wondered why the city would raise the pay for the city manager to attract competent applicants, while at the same time making cuts to city employees including those at the police department “when it is the police officers who put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis.” She asked the council to “seriously consider the CPOA offer.”

Gruendl said the matter had been discussed in closed session prior to the regular meeting.

“We have to start somewhere,” he said, “and that is why this is being sunshined. We can’t really say much. Hopefully things will become clearer and you will find some level of appreciation of that at some point.”

Jovanni Tricerri, executive director of the Chico Stewardship Network and representative of the Clean and Safe Chico group, told the council that he sees himself as “an advocate for civility in the community.” He said he saw the proposal as well as the sunshining of it as “political theater.”

“My guess is that the CPOA would put an extravagant proposal of everything they want and the response is: ‘Well, let’s sunshine this as a political move instead of a move to really be transparent,’” he said.

He called on the council to rebuild public trust with “an authentic effort at transparency, not political theater.”

Gruendl responded by saying that “an initial proposal starts at the extreme and moves its way down.”

Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen said the proposal is not a list of demands but rather a list of concepts.

“But the part that gets me is that there are questions as to why it would be sunshined,” he said. “That is a longstanding policy that goes back many years. This is nothing new. I am mystified by the sudden bewilderment.”

In the past, Sorensen noted, the council was criticized by the public for a lack of transparency since the citizens learned about the process only after the contract was approved.

“Nobody in the public saw anything until the very end, and then they only saw the finished product,” he said.

The CPOA has endorsed three candidates for City Council: incumbent Sorensen, Reanette Fillmer and Andrew Coolidge. But the CPOA’s political action committee, which made the endorsements, missed the Oct. 6 deadline of filing its latest list of campaign contributions, according to City Clerk Debbie Presson. She said a representative told her the PAC was hiring a professional firm to complete and submit the list.