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'Serious Community Discussion' Needed on Santa Monica Employee Compensation, City Manager Says  

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

January 6, 2017 -- Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole was on the defensive earlier this week about the hot topic of City employee compensation during a meeting of the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition (Wilmont).

Cole, who spoke at the meeting with City Councilmember Sue Himmelrich, faced a somewhat hostile crowd that complained of what one person called an "exorbitant compensation rate" for Santa Monica employees.

City employee compensation has been a major discussion for a long time. It was taken up a notch in November when the group Transparent California released a report saying Santa Monica’s municipal employees were among the highest paid in California (“Santa Monica Municipal Budget Among Highest Per Capita in California,” November 15, 2016).

This report received significant media attention, even outside Santa Monica.

Some people, including Cole, have criticized Transparency California's conclusions.

Among the criticisms was that the report compared compensation among different cities' employees, but with some only including salary and others including salary combined with benefits packages.

Cole expanded on what he considered the dangers of trying to compare Santa Monica’s employee compensation to that of other cities during the Wilmont meeting.

He noted that Santa Monica does almost all its services in-house, while other cities contract many out. Cole gave janitorial and garbage services as examples.

"The reality is it's not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison to compare us to one city or to another city when they may have the same level of services, but they don’t perform them themselves,” Cole said.

He added, "There are pluses and minuses" to in-house services.

A participant asked Cole if the City should do a study on whether reducing the size of the number of employees would also reduce costs, including the pension costs, which Cole said earlier in the meeting are "a very serious and existential threat to public agencies across America and in California."

Cole responded, "We should study the question of whether contracting out certain functions over the long run will help sustain the City fiscally over the long run."

He added, "We do have to have a serious community discussion about our ability over not just the next three years or five years, which we’re in great shape for, but over the next 15, 20 years because we have to think about the next generation. That’s our responsibility."

Cole said the discussion of employee compensation often leads to those on one side of the issue "demonizing" people on another side, which he said was not a good way to have a "serious community dialogue."

Meanwhile, there could be a movement to bring the issue of employee compensation to the Santa Monica ballot.

One meeting attendee said an effort is ongoing to put the issue before the voters. The legalities of such a referendum are unclear.

A neighborhood meeting usually has an audience limited to those who attend it. But this one received extra viewers because activist Laura Wilson posted a video of a portion of the session on the Internet through Facebook Live.

In a related incident this week, Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks defended her compensation on Twitter.

Seabrooks' total compensation package of $478,120 for 2015 was one of the most highlighted features in the media coverage of Transparency California’s report.

She was reported to be the most highly compensated police chief in California, but Cole has disputed that claim.

After Seabrooks posted Thursday on Twitter that people should prepare questions for her January 17 appearance on CityTV’s program "Ask the Chief," a person with the Twitter name “JoJo” responded, "How do you justify $500K+ salary when [President Obama’s salary is lower]."

Seabrooks replied that this figure was not correct, saying her total compensation was "just over" $400,000. She also noted she has 35 years of professional experience and education.

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