It's time for serious discussion about the compensation of local elected officials.

In October, investigative reporter Thomas Peele revealed that at least 69 members of special district boards in the region collected salaries and benefits in excess of $20,000 annually, often for attending a small number of meetings each year.

Leonard Battaglia, a director at the Richmond-based West County Wastewater District received $50,332 in compensation for attending 85 hours of meetings, which works out to $592 an hour.

San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Pietro Parravano's compensation, $25,757 in cash and benefits for attending 21 meetings that lasted an average of 77 minutes each, came out to $955 an hour.

Fat compensations are not limited to just the years on the job, and are by no means restricted to salary. Last week, Peele detailed that Bay Area taxpayers spent more than $1.5 million in 2012 on health benefits for former elected officials and, in many cases, their dependents.

Former six-term Santa Clara Valley Water District Director Patrick Ferraro, who left office in 1995, received benefits for himself and two dependents in 2012 that cost nearly $50,000. The West Contra Costa Unified School District paid out $97,000 that year to cover health insurance for nine retired trustees.

The health care benefits for former elected officials are especially insidious. In most cases, the public agencies never set aside money at the time the work was performed as they supposedly do for pensions.


Advertisement

As a result, the money for retiree health care often comes directly out of the agencies' budgets. Think about it: Current taxpayers foot the bill for benefits of officials who often served decades ago.

A 1995 state law banned special districts from providing benefits to former elected officials who took office after that year. But cities and school districts can still offer them.

Who sets these benefit levels? Why, it's the very officials who will reap personal gain from them. Worse, in many cases, the benefits are tied to those offered to the public employees they oversee.

As a result, when those elected officials negotiate contracts, they have a self-interest in keeping health and retirement benefits for their workers high. It's a putrid ethical conflict that produces overly generous benefits, the cost of which is often hidden below the radar.

In 2011, for example, political pressure mounted to do away with the obsolete Mt. Diablo Health Care District in Central Contra Costa. But the agency with power to dissolve the district had to first figure out what to do about Ron Leone, a then-61-year-old retired director who was entitled to lifetime health care benefits for him and his wife. An actuary estimated the current value of his future benefits at $556,000. That was for just one retired official.

With elected leaders drinking at the benefit trough, it's little wonder that local governments across the state have hundreds of billions of dollars of unfunded health care and pension liabilities.

In 2007, this news organization won a state Supreme Court ruling for us and the taxpayers of California that mandated release of public employees' salaries. Since then, we have worked hard to daylight the wages and benefits of government workers and officials.

Now, six years later, we have a clearer picture of the abuses, which start with the elected leaders. In most cases, these part-time jobs do not justify additional benefits. And the notion of providing pensions and retiree health care usually makes no sense.

Determination of fair compensation would factor in the nature of the office -- county supervisor vs. mosquito abatement district director, for example. And the population served is a legitimate criterion.

Moreover, there should be uniform standards across the state, and they should be set by an independent commission. It's time to end this excessive self-dealing.