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 (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
(Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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Think of city managers as the train conductors of democracy. They’re the CEOs charged with carrying out an elected city council’s (occasionally warped, confused or conflicting) vision — which can be an extremely arduous task.

We’ve been looking at public pay and pensions lately — , officeholders, workers, — and a nudge from on high steered us toward city manager compensation.

Remember — before there were public databases of same — and the firestorm of outrage it ignited?

Remember the , and Robert Rizzo’s $1.5 million compensation in one of California’s most disadvantaged cities?

These numbers can tell important tales. And high payouts are often accompanied by high drama. Occasionally, the train conductors of democracy are involved in train wrecks.

Drama

The most well-compensated city manager in California was the erstwhile CM in the modest metropolis of Montebello in Los Angeles County, collecting a cool $1 million in 2022 (the available from the state controller).

sued Montebello which she claimed was payback for reporting what she saw as city violations of bidding laws to the police chief,

But even without her, conflict in Montebello remained: An (along with the city spokesperson and the city HR director). Perhaps we’ll see what that cost taxpayers when the controller’s next data batch drops.

Anyway, California’s second-highest-comped city manager helmed the modest city of Santa Clara — smaller than the city of Orange — in Silicon Valley. Handsome wages of $529,352 were topped with retirement plan contributions of $175,284, deferred compensation of $50,434 and health benefits of $30,226, for jaw-dropping total comp of $785,296.

That was Santa Clara’s Deanna Santana, and she pulled down way more than the city manager of nearby San Jose ($479,365), even though San Jose is nearly 10 times larger, population-wise.

More conflict here: Santana “When you get bitten by a dog, you need to heal regardless,” a councilmember said at the time. “The teeth may leave holes, but you need to remove the dog.”

If any of this strikes you as eccentric, wait until you hear about the mess in Palmdale. A headline in one of our publications read, ““

This city manager was J.J. Murphy, who had wages of just $83,758 in 2022 — but “lump sum” pay of $632,810, for total comp of $734,654. Turns out Murphy regularly brought a gun to work and was recorded receiving oral sex from a married woman, according to the workers who sued, claiming they were “terrorized” and discriminated against for raising concerns about no-bid contracts, gender biases and other city misconduct. Murphy had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and tensions ran so high that one official wore a bulletproof vest to a city council meeting, fearing what might happen if Murphy was fired that night.

Anyway, Palmdale paid that aforementioned $5.25 million to settle the lawsuit from three high-level employees; Murphy was fired; Murphy sued for wrongful termination, claiming he was the victim of retaliation for refusing to cut corners to help out councilmembers’ donors; and Palmdale paid him that aforementioned $2.23 million.

Lawsuits aside, employment contracts for these high-powered, lightning-rod positions aim to cushion the city manager’s financial blow in event of a municipal train wreck.

The city manager is an at-will employee serving at the city council’s pleasure and can be terminated at any time, without notice, and with or without cause, says the contract for Temecula’s city manager, which is pretty standard.

If the city council unanimously gives the CM the ax, the CM gets severance of 12 months’ salary. If the council splits, with a majority voting to ax the CM but others voting to keep, the cost rises considerably, to a severance of 18 months’ salary.

Less drama

Anaheim City Council Members listen to public comments regarding the $1.9 billion DisneylandForward proposal, which would bring new developments within the Disneyland footprint, during a council meeting on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer)
Anaheim city councilmembers listen to public comments on the $1.9 billion DisneylandForward proposal in April. (Photo by Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer)

Most of the time, though, bulletproof vests are unnecessary. The meat and potatoes work of zoning and paving and putting police and firefighters on the streets proceeds with far less drama (and, often, a good bit less money).

The average city manager’s total comp in Los Angeles County cities was $321,233.

In Riverside County cities, it was $297,475.

In Orange County cities, it was $296,433.

In San Bernardino County cities, it was $291,281.

Most of these folks are handling multi-million-dollar budgets and overseeing thousands of workers — though those aren’t always the most well-compensated ones, as we’ve seen.

If you object to these pay packages, we’ll refer you to the CM’s delicious rant at the end of this story — and to the mirror. The city council approves the city manager’s pay. Citizens elect the city council.

The top 25 most well-comped city managers in California include seven from Los Angeles County (remember, strong mayor cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, Oakland and San Francisco don’t have the city manager-council form of government, so won’t show up here). San Bernardino had three, Riverside had two and Orange County had none. (Story continues after database)

Something that got our Spidey Senses buzzing: Retirement and health benefits that seemed rather high in relation to wages.

Benefits

In Rancho Cucamonga, for example, the city manager had wages of $343,289 — and retirement and health benefits of $222,202.

CM John R. Gillison explained that this includes deferred compensation of $104,000. He voluntarily deferred 10% of his salary into a Retirement Health Savings program to help pay medical costs for himself and his spouse. The city offers no post-employment health benefits to retirees — a big cost-saver for the public, and one that too few agencies embrace (but that’s a separate story) — so the savings program helps cover gaps until folks are Medicare-eligible.

Note that Gillison paid his share of required retirement contributions — 8% of what he makes — but many other CMs do not.

Just like many of us must pay into our own 401(k) accounts out of our own pockets, public workers are supposed to pay into their retirement accounts out of their own pockets as well. The employer pays the bulk, but workers are supposed to have skin in the game, and it eases the public burden a bit.

Yet there are still some 60 cities paying both the employer’s required pension contribution and the worker’s required pension contribution, according to the controller’s data.

Consider: The city of Newark paid $107,769 for its employer’s share of the CM’s retirement, and $31,524 for the CM’s share. The compensation aligns with what’s offered by other Bay Area cities, a city spokesperson told us. Those retirement and health benefit numbers include what the city’s required to pay each year, as well as contributions toward unfunded liabilities, “ensuring the long-term sustainability of the pension fund.” There’s also a 401(a) defined contribution amounting to 6% of base salary; and health benefits that max out at $2,400 a month for employee and family coverage.

Other cities paying between $15,000 and $30,000 a year to cover the worker’s share of pension contributions were Santa Ana, Temecula, Lancaster, Berkeley, Aliso Viejo, Delano, Oakley, Yuba City, Redondo Beach, Camarillo, Cerritos, Yorba Linda, Albany, Azusa, Highland, Moorpark, Capitola, Diamond Bar, Sunnyvale and San Fernando.

In Palo Alto, the city did not cover the employee’s portion of retirement contributions — but its contribution to the CM’s retirement was a beefy $158,451. Total wages were $375,516, and total comp hit $581,050.

City spokesperson Meghan Horrigan-Taylor said only about a quarter of the pension payment “relates to the employee while approximately 75% of this relates to unfunded pension liability for the employer’s retirees within the plan. CalPERS requires unfunded liability payments for retirees and these costs are allocated across all current employees, which distorts and overstates the actual benefit figure specific to an individual current employee.”

Often skewing things are outsized payouts that often accompany retirements.

In Norco, for example, the city manager clocked total wages of $378,604 — a wee $166,593 in regular pay, and $212,011 in “other pay.” That’s an anomaly, a city spokesperson said, because the CM retired after 20 years of service and cashed out unused vacation, administrative and sick leave.

Laguna Beach City Manager Ken Frank will retire after 31-years with the city. His last day will be on Friday. His immediate retirement plans include a trip to the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu. ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: s.lb.frank.1207 - 12/6/10 - LEONARD ORTIZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER - City Manager of Laguna Beach, Ken Frank will retire after 31-years with the city. His last day will be on Friday. His immediate retirement plans include a trip to the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu.
Laguna Beach City Manager Ken Frank

Institutions

We hate to sound like a dinosaur, but we remember when city managers served for decades in a single city. They were rudders on the ships. Integral parts of their communities. Institutions, if you will.

helmed Laguna Beach for 31 years. There’s a gorgeous view park named after him, for goodness sake.

ran Laguna Hills for 26 years. was Laguna Niguel’s city manager for more than 22 years. was on deck in Anaheim for 22 years, a dozen of them as head honcho. ran Huntington Beach for 11 years.

These days, it seems like there’s a lot of churn at the top. are more frequent and nastier. Since Frank left Laguna some 13 years ago, there have been at least four folks in the CM’s chair, and one of them left after filing a against a councilmember, and enduring a (someone smeared feces all around). Anaheim and Huntington Beach have burned through several CMs as well.

Honestly, it’s a job I could never do. This explains exactly why:

“I’m a retired City Manager with 33 years in the barrel in one position or another,” a city manager wrote to us after the Kogerman report dropped. “Over the years, I told many people that my contract was public record and they were welcome to a copy at 10 cents a page. As for those who think they can do this job in their sleep, give it your best shot.

“YOU tell every councilman that no, you won’t make an exception to the building code for his friend; you won’t hire his brother-in-law; you won’t contribute to his campaign or anyone else’s. You tell the mayor that his wonderful proposal is against state law. You negotiate with the police and fire unions and face their family and snot-nosed kids when they can’t get a fat contract. You explain to the Little League why the city can’t spend another $10 million for a new baseball complex; and on and on and on.

“If you can do the job for half price without sinking the city financially or shooting yourself or the city council politically, have at it! I only have 18 years of schooling and a lot of post-grad work. Probably you’re twice as good with half the background and experience and hey … that’s what you get for half the money.”

Update 7/17: The city of Lafayette incorrectly reported numbers to the state controller, which put it in the top 25 statewide. The city has filed amended numbers with the controller which show total compensation of $424,244 for 2022, which removes Lafayette from the Top Comp list for the state.

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