Monday, March 30, 2009

Defending the superintendent's salary

Friday's Sun Post reported that MUSD superintendent Jason Messer is getting a raise in salary from $161,822.39 a year as assistant superintendent to $186,222.38 a year for his new job as superintendent for the 22,800 student Manteca school district. The district's previous superintendent, Cathy Nichols-Washer was making $207,415.80 a year before she left for a $230K job with Lodi's school district.

Some people, including Manteca resident Steven J. Catalano, think Messer shouldn't be getting a raise while the district is cutting teachers' jobs and salaries. I'm going to defend Messer's raise, odd as that may seem. When the former superintendent left for $greener$ pastures, Messer took over the job with no increase in pay or title while the district searched for Nichols-Washer's replacement. Messer has done a good job and was recognized by being appointed permanent superintendent. Along with that job goes the salary and benefits the district budgeted for the position. Because he worked hard and was promoted from within the ranks, should he be penalized? Afterall, had an outsider been hired, they would have been offered the same pay. That's not to say I think the salary isn't overly generous, but it is what it is right now and it would be unfair to expect Messer to decline the raise that goes along with the job and title.

Messer's raise will be short-lived. He has already agreed to reduce his salary starting July 1 (the start of the new fiscal year) to $176,441.51 through June 30, 2011. Messer also turned down benefits that included a monthly expense account and declined to join an administrators union that would cost the district $1,700 in union dues. Why administrators need a union is beyond me, but I applaud Messer for staying independent. The district will also eliminate mileage stipends for administrators starting in July, including $650 month that Messer currently gets.

Meanwhile the teachers and their union bosses, the elitist of the elite because they went to college and some have masters degrees, are still fighting any reduction in raises or pay that would save jobs and help the schools. They'd rather see fellow teachers with less seniority lose their jobs and the kids go without. There's another view from Manteca resident Stacie Silveira in today's Bulletin that's worth reading.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Said what?

Dennis Wyatt writes:

"Former Mayor Carlon Perry told the committee he thought 'the City Council has done a good job so far ....'"

What meeting was Mr. Wyatt at? I was there and former mayor Carlon Perry didn't say anything about the city council. From what I recall, he said the city staff had "done a good job" in cutting a few million dollars from the budget and to continue that.

The quote could just as easily read the former mayor says staff has done a good job cutting 2 million; now go back and cut some more!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Misplaced anger and self-righteousness

In the last few weeks, much ado has been made over what amounts to minor expenditures by local governments. First we had the scathing opinion piece in the Manteca Bulletin about Lathrop politicians and city employees "stuffing their faces" on shrimp and cake paid for by taxpayers. Next, we had the "petition" to stop Lathrop's mayor from making a lobbying trip to Washington which received way more media coverage than it deserved. Now we have the Bulletin raking the city of Manteca over the coals for holding their annual employee recognition awards banquet last weekend.

Let's review a little bit. As Manteca Live pointed out, the shrimp-laden receptions Lathrop is fond of holding are open to the public. Anyone (even me who doesn't live in Lathrop) can go to one of those receptions and have some shrimp and cake and schmooze with local politicians. I wish Manteca would hold more receptions that are open to the public.

Then, there's the infamous petition circulated by the League of Extraordinary Gadflies that garnered all of 60 signatures demanding that the Lathrop mayor not take a planned trip to Washington DC, the purpose of which is to lobby for some of the federal tax dollars being tossed around due to the "stimulus" and "bailouts." Even though we've received threats over our stand on this, we still say $5,000 to send the mayor and the interim city manager on this trip is a small price to pay to try to get some of the money that's available from Washington right now. While the critics claim this is not the right time to be spending money on this trip, we argue that it's EXACTLY the right time. There are billions of dollars being given away and any local government that doesn't try to grab some of it is missing out on a chance to help their community.

Critics say Lathrop has spent $45,000 on the Washington trips over the past 8 years and only brought back $1.6 million. That's an excellent return on their investment. But let's not focus on the realities, it's more fun to pretend we're outraged. Though they deny it vigorously, it's obvious to anyone who follows local politics that the attempt to keep the mayor home is personal on the part of the League of Extraordinary Also-Rans. At least two of the League members have close ties to the developers rumored to have bank-rolled the vicious campaign last year to oust the mayor and this is just a continuation of the attacks.

The latest hit piece from the Bulletin criticizes Manteca city employees for partying on the taxpayer dime while people are losing their jobs and homes. This is another attempt to rile up the masses over something that "sounds like you should be outraged about" but is really another drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of the budget. The city employees are still "employees" whether we're paying them or someone else is and they deserve recognition just like anyone else who is doing a good job. And in another back-handed slap at Lathrop, at the end of the article about the Manteca party, Wyatt AGAIN brings up the damned shrimp cocktails saying $300 could pay the cost of a household's sewer and water for a year. I'm picturing Mayor Sayles dressed up like Marie Antoinette saying "let them eat cake (and shrimp)!"

All this complaining about minor expenditures is just pandering to people feeling the crunch of a recession and manufacturing false outrage and envy. Instead of focusing on the small things, why isn't the Bulletin or the League of Extraordinary Gadflies pointing out the big problems with government, like the bloated union-negotiated salaries and benefits packages that are bankrupting us. Or the Redevelopment Agency that puts us into debt and sucks tax money away from the general fund and schools and gives it to big retailers. Those are the real golden calves that no one wants to criticize. So instead we point out the little things and try to incite outrage while the elephant in the room is ignored.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Submitted for your approval

This is from the city manager's blog. Evidently the Brain Trust is selective about what commentary they "approve" of.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Correction: rumor Lathrop mayor attacked by wild chimpanzee false.

Correction: The previous article ( Mayor Sayles attacked by pack of wild chimpanzees at council meeting, Manteca Live Mar 17, 2009) was found to be in error and has been removed. We regret the error.

After wildlife biologists examined still frames from the council meeting video, it was determined that the attackers were not a pack of wild chimpanzees but were former mayoral office seekers known as The League of Extraordinary Candidates whose super powers, when combined, can mimic political attack.

And instead of reading "the mayors body was dismembered and pieces shipped to Oakdale, Stockton, 'Alpine County' and Washington D.C." the sentence should read "The mayor was unharmed in the attack and will be travelling to represent the city's interests in Washington D.C."
We regret any inconvenience the error may have caused.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Teachers protest own decision to cut jobs.

Manteca teachers protest "job cuts." But here's the mystery: The teachers themselves choose to cut jobs. With the current budget conditions there was sufficient funds for every teacher to remain with only a 3 percent cut in pay for one year. The teachers' union leaders decided to fire several hundred teachers instead. So, what they are protesting? How do you protest your own decision?
Ken Johnson, the teacher's representative, at the school board meeting holds up a flag flown in combat in Iraq given to his class by their soldier/airman pen pal. This was after he spoke in terms of fighting for the teachers' jobs. I'm not sure who the battle is with since he's the one who decides if teachers are fired or not.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Lathrop's petty politics

Today's Bulletin has an article about a petition being circulated in Lathrop to stop Mayor Kristy Sayles from attending the One Voice lobbying trip to Washington DC that was approved by a majority of the council last week. The petition backers are former mayoral candidate J. "Chaka" Santos and former city council candidate Rosalinda Valencia, two vocal opponents of the mayor and regular gadflies at Lathrop city council meetings.

This most recent petty conflict in Lathrop politics falls into the same category as the shrimp brouhaha we commented on last week. Faced with an unavoidable rise in utility costs that are being passed on to the residents, critics are nit-picking minor expenditures they deem to be a waste of taxpayer money as if that plate of shrimp or this trip to Washington is the problem.

The petition supposedly only seeks to stop the mayor from going to Washington. Is it okay with the petitioners if interim city manager Cary Keaten still attends? How about if it was another council member instead of the mayor going, would that be okay? Why didn't the Bulletin ask those questions? Since the mayor is a member of the San Joaquin Council of Governments (COG) and they are paying for half of her trip, seems like Lathrop is getting a bargain. How much does the trip to Washington cost anyway? Why didn't the Bulletin ask that?

What happens once the petition is presented to the council? Is there any legal standing to the petition that requires the council to act on it? Does the city have to vet signatures on the petition? Or is this just all for show?

Once again the Bulletin falls short on reporting the facts and instead focuses on the whinings of a few sore losers who hate the mayor.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

a bumper crop as it were in a manner of speaking

Did you ever notice that when some government official is saying something that makes no sense as a matter of logic, they often lapse into metaphor?

Like when the guy was trying to explain why city workers got a 4 to 6 percent raise in pay and at the same time were given two weeks off as a "pay cut" of 3.8%. That really made no sense except that it just sounds better in the press release: "Workers take pay cuts!" screams the headline. Except it's not really "true" in any sense; getting more money isn't a "pay cut."

In explaining this to the council and to the citizen's budget advisory committee the reason given was they were working with the various bargaining units so that we aren't behind the eight ball so that when the economy recovers we are still in the ball park.

I don't know if that dog can hunt, sounds like a perfect storm for a meltdown.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Central planning

In this otherwise routine story, the MB writer quotes a Manteca landowner asking the city officials at the dept. of central planning:

“Tell me what I can do to keep this place up,” he said he asked city
officials. “Anything, tell me what is the legal use and
landscaping. What can I do to use the property, then I can develop

This reminds me of a story recounted by Milton Friedman in his book/TV show Free to Choose. He asked a university student in the Soviet Union what did he plan to do with his future. The student answered, "I don't know, they haven't told me yet!"

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Again with the shrimp

This is the second time the Manteca Bulletin has complained bitterly about the "extravagance" of the Lathrop party organizers. Now it's the shrimp cocktails that's the "problem." You would think the mayor just bought a private jet and is being served shrimp cocktail by oiled Laotian boys while cutting deals with ex-Enron execs.

This falls under the classification of "tell the people what sounds like it should outrage them." Just look at that shrimp! The parties! This kind of opinion/reporting is why the public is so misinformed as to how tax dollars are spent.

(I previously mentioned last week in comments to the Sun Post that everyone at the school board meeting wanted the board members to cut their pay and give it to the poor workers sitting next to them. The public was ignorant that the poor worker next to them was making over forty times as much money as the board members. )

Did Mr. Wyatt ever consider the cost of the personnel and building being used for this public reception? And what benefits to the public there may be? Is the plate of shrimp cocktail (a few dollars at save-mart) really "the problem?"

All the high level city people (except the mayor and council!) are being paid well, roughly in the neighborhood $50 to $100 each hour. Let's just take round figures, let's say $80/hour for high level administrators and department heads. How many of them are there at these receptions open to the public? A dozen? (e.g., the head of planning, the police and fire chiefs, city clerk, city manager, etc., etc.). Now add in the cost of the building. From one source, the rough estimate is $500 for "a meeting." (I think the mortgage payment for the new city hall is in the ballpark of $2,000 each day.)

Let's just round it off and the back-of-the-napkin guesstimate for the cost of any meeting with all the city officials present is several thousand dollars each hour. Save that napkin, we're going to need it for the shrimp plate that cost 32 dollars or that terrible plate of cupcakes that costs $12.

Is the cost of the shrimp plate and the cupcakes really significant or a problem? And isn't there some benefit to the public? Think about it: Go down to city hall and ask for a meeting, for an hour, where you can meet with and ask questions of your city leaders. All of them: the mayor, the city manager, the department of tree trimming, whatever. Go ahead. Call up city hall and ask what that will cost you. I'll save you the trouble: you can't afford it.

But the so-called "wasteful extravagant" reception - which is open to you - is the same thing. Anyone (even you!) gets to saunter on in and meet with all those people in a cordial setting. What if you have a problem with your neighbor's chihuahua yapping all night or you want to build a swimming pool for your ferret or think some law is wrong and needs to be changed? There's your chance to -- if not discuss the issue at length -- at least meet people who you can later make an appointment with and discuss things.

Can a plate of shrimp help educate the public?

Many people are so uninformed they don't realize simple things about how their government works. Like, for example, they don't realize the mayor doesn't decide everything on a day-to-day basis. They may not even know there's a city manager or what he does or what the other departments do. The receptions are a great education for the public about how their government works. I can't help but think that if there are complaints with some department, it can never hurt to meet first in a cordial way, share a shrimp cocktail before talking about what the problem is.

And if having a plate of cupcakes there helps bring in the public then it's money well spent.


We haven't even talked about the distortions in the Bulletin hit piece.

The real purpose of the receptions is to recognize some achievement of city people. It builds morale. How would you like to work for some enterprise for 20, 30 or more years and then they throw you a retirement reception and say "sorry there's not even a cupcake here -- we didn't want to waste 12 dollars on you. Have a glass of water. At the water fountain."

The other distortion in the Bulletin diatribe was the implication that these were city fat cats stuffing themselves with your tax-paid-for "shrimp cocktail." The implication is that it's some expensive treat (which it is not) and that it was for them. But really, it's for the participants at the party -- the person being honored and YOU, the taxpayer. If it's open to the public, that's a completely different thing -- why didn't Editor Wyatt mention this?

"One" stop: say anything.

Last night the city council approved the planning department's convoluted scheme to move other department's offices, expand "counter space" and "workstations" and send the group they are displacing over to some rented office space. They call it the "one stop" planning dept shop.

But here's the mystery. We'll two mysteries if you count the mystery of why two councilmen who voted against it just two weeks ago suddenly decided its a champion idea.

The other mystery is last meeting they were proposing this "improvement" as a justification for raising fees for permits. The argument was "we will be providing faster, "more efficient" service, so we can justify collecting higher fees from "the developers."

Now, this week they claim the purpose of the musical offices is to do things more efficiently and save money. I guess that sounded better so maybe that's why it was approved this time.

So presumably now we can expect fees to be lowered? Unlike last meeting when they said the improvements would result in higher fees? Which is it? Or doesn't it matter? Is all that talk just "say whatever we need to say to get them to approve it?"

Monday, March 02, 2009

budget advisors

I went to the meeting of the "budget advisory committee" last Thursday. The committee consists of 15 impartial members of the public (3 selected by each city councilman). Here's what I've learned so far:

During the almost 3 hour meeting each city government division gave a presentation. Each presentation followed the same basic format:
a) This is what we do;
b) This is why it costs so much and it's not our fault; and
c) a chart or graph comparing them to "other cities in the area." (Eg: we have 1.4 trees per household vs. 5 other cities have 1.1, 0,9, 1.5, 1.9 trees in Lodi, Tracy, Roseville, Death Valley, whatever)

I have to wonder about the validity or purpose of all this comparing. Didn't your mother ever tell you "if all your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you jump off the bridge?" I want to ask, what's the purpose of the survey? Are the other cities doing it better? Worse? Don't we have any method of evaluating things more sophisticated than simply looking around at what other people are doing?

One of the main abuses is the fallacy of the median. Did you ever notice how all those surveys seem to "find" what they wanted to find? Like if they want more for the tree budget, the survey finds other cities have more trees. If they want to hire more people they find other cities have more staff. And, most importantly, city workers ask for raises based on these surveys that always show that everyone else is getting paid more and our pay needs to be raised to be "equal" or "fair." And it always needs to be raised to be equal, never lowered.

I've decided that I'll stop going to meetings the day that they come up with one of those surveys that doesn't show "we need to spend more" or "we deserve a raise." The day they say "we found other cities are paying much less than us, therefore we're being paid too much" is the day I'll give up any interest in keeping an eye on government.

How can it possibly be that five cities survey each other and each of them decides the others are spending more? It's like Lake Wobegon where every child is above average. It's like being in a room and measuring the height of the participants and then each participant says "everyone else is taller than me." You'd think at least one person in the room is tallest (right?) and can't say "others are taller than me" but that's what happens with these city survey and "equity studies."

Didn't anyone notice they always pick five different cities for the surveys? The ones that show what it is they want to show. And furthermore, did anyone ever stop to realize that all the other cities are doing exactly the same surveys of cities around them, including us, and basing their decisions on what they see? It's like watching some other guy and doing what he does 'cause you think he knows what he's doing; then you ask him and he says "I don't know what I'm doing, I was watching you!"

There were few other interesting revelations at that meeting. To be continued....