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Photograph by Dina Scoppettone

Dollar Days: Public officials often hate having their salaries published. Co-workers tease them. Employees ask for raises. Neighbors know what they make. But Santa Clara County went too far when it tried to fool the public into thinking it was paying its top managers less.

Salary Secrets

How the county misled the public about how much it paid its managers. And how Metro's legal challenge got them to release the information it's required by law to share. Well some of it, anyway.

By Najeeb Hasan

SANTA CLARA County officials are going to great lengths to keep the public from knowing just how much they are paying the county's top bureaucrats. Metro has waged a five-month battle to obtain the true salaries, while county brass has been busy using every trick in the book to thwart the disclosure, from legal maneuvers and claims of confidentiality to stalling and providing misleading, inaccurate or incomplete information.

Last February, Metro reported ("County's Bounty," Feb. 13) on the annual salary increases of Santa Clara County's top managers, pay hikes that were doled out in the middle of a budget crisis that forced the county to reduce service levels to the public. And while the pain will be felt in poor neighborhoods where low-wage workers will have to wait longer at bus stops, the county government's managerial elite was spared the sting of tough economic times.

During a Board of Supervisors meeting last December, the county approved a $1.2 million across-the-board pay increase for its executive management and board-appointed positions, at around the same time unions were asked to think about salary freezes and workforce reductions.

However, in listing last December's salary increases for the county's top executive brass--raises that were granted with little public deliberation--the county's website mostly understated the compensation. The county provided numbers for 90 senior employees that were more than $1 million a year under what they actually make (see chart below). The county, it has been learned, posts estimates rather than actual salaries to its public website. For example, in February Metro listed Registrar of Voters Jesse Durazo's salary as $128,964, using the estimates on the website. However, Durazo's actual salary is almost $17,000 higher at $145,924.

When asked to provide clear compensation information--such as the amounts recorded in the year-to-date box on the W-2 forms of its most highly compensated employees--the county dragged its feet, raised legal defenses and then refused to turn over the data. To get the information, Metro had to retain counsel and spend five months wrangling with the county's taxpayer-paid attorneys over a simple request for the kind of data that most government agencies routinely furnish to the media. Despite a plea to County Counsel Ann Ravel (salary $213, 746), lawyers in her office withheld the information from the public during a critical period that included wage negotiations, program cuts, passage of the county's $3 billion budget and the hiring of a new county executive.

When the county finally released a few scraps of information, the figures showed that county big shots are collecting a lot more than what the government agency represents in the salary estimates posted to the county's own website: www.sccgov.org.

The salary tables posted on the website show figures discussed during a Dec. 10 Board of Supervisors meeting and purport that the salary ranges of the county's top 171 managers would increase by 5 percent and that there would be additional adjustments due to "compaction, market comparisons and internal alignment." These salaries, it turns out, are salary ranges or midpoint salaries, not actual salaries. The actual salaries, which are not listed, can be up to 12.5 percent higher or lower than what are called "midpoint" salaries found in the official salary table on the website.

The actual 2003 salaries for the county managers were, in several cases, $5,000 to $10,000 and sometimes $20,000 higher than the information Metro originally took from the county's website in February.

With the actual salaries significantly higher than the midpoint salaries in many cases, the $1.2 million annual impact (derived from the salaries listed on the table, not from the actual salaries) of the county raises appears also, at best, a very rough estimate.

It's hard to tell whether the extraordinary efforts the county is taking to conceal the information are due to the fact that it wants to hide the facts--or that it really doesn't know just how much it's paying its top people.

"What we do is that we take an approximation, and that is the only way that we could determine [costs] until everybody's salary is submitted," says Leode Franklin, a deputy executive for the county. "[Then] it's up to the departments to manage the difference, and it isn't a huge difference. Most departments manage it pretty well."

Misleading Data

In a letter to Santa Clara County, dated Feb. 24, 2003, about 10 days after the publication of "County's Bounty," following a tip that some county insiders were snickering over the fact that salaries were higher than what the newspaper had published, Metro requested that the county provide accurate year-to-date salaries for the 118 management positions listed in the story.

The following day, Metro broadened its request to include compensation figures for all people paid at least $80,000 by the county (as of presstime, the county has refused to provide that second piece of information).

Three days later, the county responded that it did not maintain that kind of "specific information" and that year-to-date figures would not provide an accurate representation of salaries because they would include miscellaneous compensation such as sick leave, mileage and vacation.

The county sent salary figures for 2002. After receiving the limited information, Metro, on March 6, again requested complete compensation figures for 2003 (including any salary, bonuses, overtime and other forms of compensation) from the county for its top managers. Twenty-one days later, the county responded with only vehicle-allowance information for the employees.

On May 30, Metro's attorney, Duffy Carolan, again requested full compensation figures. Finally, on July 8, the county responded with the 2003 actual salaries; however, the county would only tell Metro which employees received performance bonuses up to 5 percent of their base salary but not the amount of the bonuses, citing that they were based on "confidential review." The county has still refused to provide accurate bonus information.

Why the month-long lag time between the attorney's letter and the county's response?

"Well," says Deputy County Counsel David Kahn, who sounds surprised by the question, "why did it take so long to reply? Oh, I think the best I can tell you is that Duffy [Carolan] and I were having a number of conversations about the legal issues during the time period. She was involved with other issues; I was involved with other issues. We both made an effort to get it resolved as quickly as possible. Just due to the crunch of other county commitments and I think other commitments that she had, that was when it came out."

Carolan, Metro's attorney, acknowledges that once attorneys are involved, a longer lag time is not unusual, but she says the issue about her involvement obfuscates the fact that county took too long to respond to the public records request in the first place.

"They [the county] were delinquent in responding before I ever got involved," Duffy says. "They weren't under any time constraints once they issued the denial. Where they failed to meet requirements was in the front end, when they failed to respond to the public-records request in a timely manner. They didn't respond in a timely manner, as they are required to do under the law."

As for the 20 days between the March 6 request and the March 27 reply, Kahn says telephone conversations with the Metro on March 7 and 14 allowed the county to wait that amount of time before providing any information. Franklin, meanwhile, cited other factors that complicated the information request, including the issue of the performance bonuses.

"It doesn't matter if we don't understand," Carolan says. "They still have an obligation to respond in 10 days. If your request is in writing, then they have to respond in writing--that's the law."

Deficit Mode

In February, Franklin told Metro that the December raises were a result of any of the following: market comparisons, rewards for individual performance, compaction (when the salaries of subordinates get too close to the salaries of the managers) and internal adjustments.

And while Franklin now says that while the county was cognizant of the region's fiscal situation, the above factors still had to be considered. "It was certainly part of the board's deliberation," Franklin says. "We knew we were running toward a deficit mode for this current fiscal year, and the board deliberated on this very thoughtfully."

Franklin goes on to explain that the county's website lists inaccurate salary amounts because the ordinance employed for the estimation provides only midpoint salaries--actual salaries could be anywhere within a 25 percent range for specific positions.

As a result, Metro reported in February that Assistant County Counsel Debra Cauble's 2003 salary was $173,079; her actual 2003 salary, Metro found out earlier this month, was $195,850, or $22,771 higher than the salary listed on the midpoint salary ordinance, a 13.2 percent improvement over the midpoint salary.

To take another example, Mary Solseng, the assistant assessor, had her salary listed as $118,498 in February. Her actual salary turned out to be $106,211, or $12,287 less, a 10.4 percent decrease from the midpoint salary.

The vast majority of the 2003 actual salaries for the employees surveyed, however, are significantly above the midpoint number. For instance, nine of the 15 listed employees in the office of the county executive had salaries above the midpoint level; five out the seven listed employees in the Department of Corrections had salaries above the midpoint level; and all nine listed employees in the Employee Services Agency had salaries above the midpoint level.

"You will find very few salaries below the midpoint," agrees Franklin. She adds that seniority and recruitment are factors in pushing salaries up. Other factors that push them up are the annual performance evaluations and subsequent raises. "It does not necessarily mean pay increases for everybody," Franklin continues. "But the requirements are such that ... you can go no higher than the top of the range. So even if you performed at a superstar level and did some incredible performances that merit ... [a higher raise, you don't get it]."

A month ago, in a move that Franklin says was due to the current fiscal shortfalls, Acting County Executive Peter Kutras announced that those same county managers who saw raises last December would not be seeing raises in this coming year. "Given the fiscal circumstances that all the public sector is in, including the county where we're struggling with a budget deficit, Mr. Kutras felt that it was appropriate for the leadership of the group to recognize that and not take any [new] salary increases," Franklin says. "Times are tight; we need to be sensitive and follow the pattern." The managers won't be eligible for raises again until December of 2004.

Others, though, believe that Kutras' decision, rather than showing leadership, was following the leadership of the lower-paid county workers, who gave up pay increases to save jobs.

"We actually gave some of our pay back," says Gabriel Hernandez, a work-site director for Local 715, which represents about half of the 16,000 county workers. "That's the responsible thing to do to keep services happening. I think they followed suit because we did. I think it's the smart thing to do; it's the practical thing to do."

Franklin, of course, does not agree, saying Kutras would have announced the decision whether or not the labor groups had deferred on their pay increases. "I believe he's the type of leader who needs to set the tone and send the message from the top," she says.

The Big 90

Ninety heavy hitters whose salaries were underreported by the County of Santa Clara, to the tune of $1 million.

Name Title 2002
Midpoint Salary
Actual Salary
Gerald Neary Deputy Chief Probation Officer $106,211 $124,548 $18,337
Peter Kutras Jr. Assistant County Executive 176,565 199,797 23,232
John Guthrie Director, Finance Agency 165,479 187,252 21,773
Paula Kuty** Chief Asst. District Attorney 186,524 211,064 24,540
Debra Cauble** Assistant County Counsel 173,079 195,850 22,771
Karyn Sinunu** Assistant District Attorney 173,079 195,850 22,771
John Cavalli Chief Probation Officer 138,285 156,477 18,192
Will Lightbourne Director, Social Services Agency 152,029 172,027 19,998
Jesse Durazo Registrar of Voters 128,964 145,924 16,960
Robert Bravo Correctional Captain 112,740 127,559 14,819
Edward Flores Assistant Chief of Correction 124,548 140,918 16,370
Dueane Williams GSA Communications Director 112,740 127,558 14,818
Naomi Tsururnoto Director of Sheriff's Admin. Services 122,701 138,828 16,127
Nancy Fowler Manager, Property Management Div. 106,211 120,159 13,948
Brenda Davis County Clerk/Recorder 103,682 117,204 13,522
Benny Del Re Director of the Crime Laboratory 101,152 114,324 13,172
John Lernes Chief Internal Auditor 101,152 114,324 13,172
Jim Sadtler Chief Accounting Manager 93,554 105,727 12,173
Robert Easley Chief Appraiser 96,807 109,399 12,592
Virginia Harnley Chief Auditor-Appraiser 96,807 109,399 12,592
Hector Garza Administrator of Benefit Services 99,715 112,629 12,914
Onita Spake Chief Fiscal Officer 113,304 127,977 14,673
Janet Moody Director, Risk Management 111,623 125,881 14,258
Alice Wheatley Administrative Services Manager 98,232 110,762 12,530
Chau Trinh Administrative Services Manager 98,232 110,762 12,530
Sheila Mohan* Financial and Admin. Services Manager 98,232 110,762 12,530
Rhonda Armstrong Assessor's Off. Admin. Serv. Manager 91,329 102,910 11,581
Diana Hunter Adminstrative Services Manager 91,329 102,910 11,581
Herb Wiley Investment Officer 100,200 112,902 12,702
Pat Love Special Projects Director 111,623 125,212 13,589
Gregory Schmunk Chief Medical Examiner/Coroner 166,306 186,524 20,218
Laurie Faulkner ** Assistant County Counsel 173,079 194,116 21,037
Gary Aslanian Director, Information Systems 111,623 124,548 12,925
Steve Black Manager, Building Operations 102,644 114,437 11,793
Susan Levenberg** Assistant County Counsel 173,079 192,190 19,111
Alvin Weger** Assistant District Attorney 173,079 192,190 19,111
Cheryl Johnson Tax Collector 116,740 129,609 12,869
Gay Strand Administrative Services Manager 98,232 108,880 10,648
Maria Dupras Director, Equal Opp. and Empl Devlpt. 111,623 123,315 11,692
Joanne Cox Human Resources Oper. Manager 98,232 108,339 10,107
Grant Armstrong** Assistant Public Defender 173,079 190,283 17,204
Dave Elledge Controller/Treasurer 125,170 137,596 12,426
Alette Lundeberg Administrator of Benefit Services 99,715 109,423 9,708
George Rixman Fiscal Services Manager 113,870 124,548 10,678
Rita Hamilton Director of Procurement 115,584 126,422 10,838
Michael Murdter Dir., Roads and Airport Department 144,633 157,431 12,798
Norma Doctor-Sparks Dir., Family and Children Services 119,683 129,609 9,926
Jonathon Wolin Administrative Services Manager 106,211 115,009 8,798
Ken Phillips Labor Relations Manager 98,232 106,211 7,979
Karen Rixman Admin., Exec. Recruitment Services 90,440 97,756 7,316
Leode Franklin Deputy County Executive 165,479 178,335 12,856
Kevin Carruth Dir. of General Services Agency 153,552 165,479 11,927
Dorothy Smith* Director of Information Systems 116,160 125,170 9,010
Cliff O'Connor Chief Deputy Director, Social Services 125,794 135,533 9,739
Christine Sorensen Baucus Chief Administrative Officer 105,211 113,304 8,093
Phyllis Perez-Sorensen Clerk of the Board of Supervisors 123,853 133,271 9,418
Robert Cecil Public Administrator/Guardian 99,715 107,266 7,551
Marc Buller** Assistant District Attorney 173,079 185,596 12,517
Thomas Fahrenholz** Assistant District Attorney 173,079 185,596 12,517
Lesha Luu Controller - Treasurer Div. Manager 93,554 100,200 6,646
Ann Sloan Chief Deputy - Clerk of the Board 90,440 96,807 6,367
David Mann** Chief Asst. Public Defender 186,524 199,019 12,495
William Larsen** Assistant District Attorney 173,079 184,673 11,594
Dennis Bacon* Commander 122,701 130,907 8,206
Ken Borelli Asst. Director, Family and Children 104,701 111,623 6,922
Wendy Beadle Tax Apportionment Manager 86,555 92,196 5,641
Jose Villarreal** Public Defender 199,047 211,935 12,888
Gary Graves Deputy County Executive 165,479 175,687 10,208
Ronald Norman** Assistant Public Defender 173,079 183,753 10,674
Darrel Starnbaugh* Commander 122,701 130,256 7,555
Betty Malks Director, Adult and Aging Services 108,880 115,584 6,704
Zonia Beecher-Waldon Asst. Director, Family and Children 104,701 111,070 6,369
Anthony Arata Adminstrative Services Manager 98,232 104,189 5,957
Gwendolyn Mitchell Public Communication Director 116,740 122,701 5,961
Vinod Sharma Controller - Treasurer Div. Manager 93,554 98,232 4,678
Gina Alcomendras Assistant County Clerk/Recorder 89,563 94,041 4,478
Thomas Brewer Chief Investigator 120,881 126,422 5,541
Jeffrey Davis Admin., Meas. B Improvement Prog. 106,211 111,070 4,859
Ken Rado Manager, Capital Programs 117,322 122,092 4,770
Terry Gitlin Director, Emergency Preparedness 94,041 97,756 3,715
Peter Dever Director, Dept. of Child Support Services 173,079 179,227 6,148
Leslie Crowell Budget Manager 117,322 121,484 4,162
Thelma Zuniga Manager, Workers' Comp. Division 92,196 95,428 3,232
Ernest Smedlund Captain 112,740 116,160 3,420
Joseph Kirby* Captain 112,740 116,160 3,420
Alayne Bolster Chief Public Defender Investigator 107,266 110,519 3,253
David Gottlieb Correctional Captain 112,740 115,584 2,844
Sandra Padget-Miles Correctional Captain 112,740 115,584 2,844
Kathy Duque* Deputy Chief Probation Officer 106,211 108,339 2,128
Doug Southard* Children's Shelter Director 104,701 105,748 1,047
Total Discrepancy $1,006,303

Editor's Note: These salary amounts are approximations based on biweekly salary information provided by the county and rounded to the nearest dollar. Source: County of Santa Clara

*Denotes officials who did not receive compensation from Santa Clara County last year in that position.

**These attorney salaries include a 9.5 percent increase given in September and a 5 percent bump in December.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the September 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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