The really big rips

Bell is bad, but what about Wall Street?

What salary is appropriate for a city manager or county chief administrative officer? That’s a question being widely asked in the wake of revelations of the outlandish salaries paid administrators in the small Los Angeles County city of Bell.

There’s a local angle here. Butte County supervisors last week hired a new CAO, Paul Hahn, from Sacramento County, at a salary of $217,000. That’s what it costs to hire someone good, they said.

The Chico Enterprise-Record quickly raised a red flag. Hahn’s salary, a July 30 editorial states, “continues a potentially harmful trend” of paying successive county CAOs $20,000 more than their predecessors.

Thing is, $217,000 is about average pay for a CAO hereabouts. A recent Sacramento Bee rundown of chief-executive pay at 17 agencies in Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and El Dorado counties shows that Hahn’s salary is pretty much in the middle.

Hahn, who will oversee 2,000 employees, will earn considerably less than Chico State President Paul Zingg and Enloe CEO Mike Wiltermood, who both oversee similar numbers of employees.

So what’s an appropriate salary for Hahn? As the E-R editorial states, time will tell whether he’s worth the money. But, as the Bee’s figures show, his salary is not out of line in what is clearly a buyer’s market.

It’s ironic that all this negative attention is being paid to public employees’ salaries, when the truly obscene excesses are in the private sector. A good example is Carly Fiorina, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, who took a $21.4 million payout when she was fired from Hewlett-Packard after nearly driving the company, and its stock values, into the ground. Or take Meg Whitman, Republican candidate for governor, who made hundreds of millions and flew around in a private jet while laying off 20 percent of eBay’s employees. Or consider those masters of the universe on Wall Street who walked away with multimillion-dollar bonuses after causing a recession that threw 16 million people out of work.

Yes, paying a city manager $800,000 is outrageous. Clearly nobody was minding the store in Bell (the town has no newspaper, and it took the LA Times to uncover the story). But compared to the Wall Street barons and people like Fiorina and Whitman, Bell’s city manager is small potatoes.

Catching up with Donnell: Some readers will remember Donnell Alexander (, who wrote for the CN&R for a couple of years back in the early ’90s. He went on to LA Weekly and then moved to New York City to work for ESPN The Magazine, before moving back to Los Angeles. He’s authored one book, the much-praised Ghetto Celebrity, and co-authored another, Rollin’ With Dre, an insider’s account of the seminal West Coast hip-hop group NWA.

A couple of years ago he scored an opportunity to record former Pittsburg Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis describing the time he threw a no-hitter while stoned on LSD. That bizarre account has since been turned into a short, clever animated feature called Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No that’s being shown everywhere, including at Sundance. Google “Dock Ellis” and you’ll find it.