Friday, December 30, 2016

Excessive pensions betray the public trust

The LA Times ran a story today (December 30, 2016) entitled, "When City Retirement Pays Better than the Job." 

Featured prominently in the story are two former city managers of El Monte, California.  Former manager, James Mussenden, earns $216,000 in pension benefits.  His predecessor, Harold O. Johanson, earns more than $250,000... at age 58.  For El Monte, pension costs absorb about 28 percent of the general fund.  And as the Times notes,

"El Monte’s outsize pension bill weighs heavily on the San Gabriel Valley city of 116,000, where half the residents were born outside the United States and a quarter live below the poverty line."

There is a great deal to bother any citizen or responsible public administrator in the story, but what bothers me is the seemingly sheepish acknowledgment by the retired managers that what they are doing is wrong.  And to answer the presumably rhetorical question posed by one, "... I make too much money now, but what can I do?"

Give it back!  Instead of taking money you know you haven't earned, instead of reaping the financial benefit of a poor decision you made, let the City of El Monte use the money to provide services.  Fund a scholarship program for city managers (and other public employees) to attend ethics training.

What is it about California municipalities beginning with the outrageous example of Bell?

One of the primary responsibilities of a city manager or county administrator is to serve as a steward.  The measure of our profession is leaving a local government stronger--financially, organizationally, and ethically--than when we found it.  One of the great strengths of our position is to see clearly beyond the next election into future decades.  This is why we should be the staunchest advocates of decisions where the real effects are felt in the distant future.  No public employee is better situated to promote fully-funding a pension plan, using realistic rates of return, and ensuring that the cost of future benefits doesn't hamstring a city or county from providing core services.

I have never met Mr. Mussenden or Mr. Johanson.  Of course, I don't spend any time on golf courses or traveling Europe.  If I do, I will tell them that what they have done has hurt more than the city they were entrusted to manage.  It has damaged the profession by further diminishing public trust in local government.

Hopefully, it won't be the first time they've heard it.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Civil Forfeiture

Civil forfeiture is the fairly terrible idea that your property can seized by the government separately from the criminal justice process. 

The City of Albuquerque has an aggressive program as described by the Institute for Justice here. The lede of the article:

"Arlene Harjo’s two-year-old silver Nissan Versa has sat for months in an impound lot in Albuquerque—targeted by city officials for civil forfeiture.

Nobody claims Arlene violated the law. Instead, the city is trying to take Arlene’s car because her son, Tino, allegedly drove drunk. Arlene does not approve of drunk driving; if Tino broke the law, she agrees he should be punished. But she does not see why she should be the one to lose her car."

Setting aside the obvious Constitutional issues, the problem with civil forfeiture is that it's a system that incentivizes government seizing private property.  And anyone who has passed Economics 101 understands that people respond to incentives.  This is why a program designed to punish drug dealers by seizing expensive assets like boats and cars evolved into a system that robs mostly ordinary (and mostly poor) citizens.

The Institute for Justice delves into the issue more deeply in the report, "Policing for Profit."  So why talk about it on this blog?  Wrongheaded programs like civil forfeiture destroy what little confidence people have left in local government.  What Albuquerque is doing is more than unlawful; it's just plain wrong.  Arlene Harjo deserves an apology, not just from the City of Albuquerque but from the profession of public administration for not speaking out more strongly.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Critical thinking

After arriving at Gonzaga University, I met my academic, a crusty Jesuit priest who told me:

"The University can only teach you two things, Mr. Decker: How to think and how to express what you think."

Looking at the Gonzaga curriculum today, I see that not much has changed since my freshman year in 1980.  "The Block" continues to teach first-year students composition, logic, and rhetoric.  Unfortunately, my studies during my first two years extended beyond the Trivium into decidedly more social pursuits. After three years on active duty in Navy (and a fair number of distractions in ports, foreign and domestic), I returned to Gonzaga to complete my undergraduate work.

I had long wondered if I might find myself back in a college classroom, though perhaps as an instructor.  Regrettably, most modern universities seem far more focused on teaching students what to think rather than how to think.  Under the withering criticism of my professors (many Jesuits), there were no intellectual "safe spaces."

The habits of critical thinking have carried me into a career of public service and, quite often, placed me at odds with my profession.  Thus, the name of this modest blog.

Monday, February 29, 2016

What if everything we know is wrong?

For the vast majority of people, government is boring.  A blog by a veteran city/county administrator about nuts of bolts of local government is probably coma inducing and should come with a warning label about driving or operating heavy equipment.

While painfully dull, the work we do as administrators can be important.  Getting it right supports representative democracy at its highest ambitions.  Getting it wrong means we're managing Cleveland, or worse, Ferguson, Missouri.

Ferguson is a good starting point for this blog.  To quote the lede from Mike Maciag's August 22, 2014, article in "Governing,"

"Some say Ferguson's increasing reliance on court fines to fund its municipal operations may have contributed to its residents' distrust in law enforcement and government."

In truth, it was worse than Maciag's tempered characterization.  A well-written account of the system was written by Arch City Defenders in the form of a white paper.

The question for our profession--local government administrators--is, "Where were we"?  It doesn't take a Master's in Public Administration to foresee trouble from a system that incentivizes civil citations, excessive fees, and snowballing charges.  Many jurisdictions face the same situation with the abuse of civil forfeiture laws.

Instead of the seemingly endless parade of discussions about "sustainability" or "citizen engagement," we should spent more time talking about how the methods we use to raise revenues shape or harm our communities.

Why do natural disasters often bring out the best in people...

and the worst in local governments? Another dispatch from the post-Hurricane Irma mess comes from Green Cove Springs, Florida.  According...