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What ever happened to public service?

Posted: June 23, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: June 23, 2013 2:00 a.m.

The entitlement mentality has become so pervasive in America that it is slowly killing the long-standing tradition of public service.

You remember public service. It used to be provided by community-minded people who would run for public offices like city councils, school boards, water agencies, and other local governmental bodies.

Typically, they would be appropriately reimbursed for costs associated with doing the business of their respective agencies. But for them, being an elected official wasn’t about creating a revenue stream. It was about making a contribution, having a positive impact on important local processes.

Now elected officials have discovered that they can get a personal revenue stream from the public treasury.

On one side of the spectrum are community-minded citizens engaged in public service, and on the other side are Congress and municipalities like the city of Bell.

To be sure, most local governmental agencies are far from the transgressions of Congress and the city of Bell, but these two are prime examples of what happens when the practice of voting yourself benefits out of the taxpayers’ bank account goes unchecked.

The Santa Clarita City Council, the William S. Hart Union High School District board and the Castaic Lake Water Agency board have all been in the news at one time or another over voting themselves benefits from the public pocketbook.

No one is suggesting that any local officials are doing something underhanded or illegal, but there is something disturbing about voting yourself benefits as an elected official and quietly transitioning public service into a job turning taxpayer dollars away from the needs of local government to getting a salary that is worth far more than being reimbursed for a tank of gas to city hall and back.

The City Council recently voted 3-1 to give itself a raise of 6 percent starting in July 2014. This follows a vote in 2011 to increase its pay by 10 percent over a four-year period, since its pay hadn’t been adjusted since 2008.

Certainly there’s nothing illegal in this — the council could have taken a 5 percent raise each year under state law. Some might praise council members for their restraint in not hiking their wages more.

But really, are "wages" what council members are at City Hall for? From the comments by two council members at the meeting June 11 at which they gave preliminary approval to the raise, one might conclude so.

"I wouldn’t want that (raise) to be ahead of what the employees have now," Councilwoman Laurene Weste commented.

To that, Councilwoman Marsha McLean responded that the council’s raise should be 3 percent to put it in line with city employees’ cost-of-living adjustments.

We don’t view police, fire, mail carriers, Caltrans workers or city public works employees as public service. These are public-sector jobs.

The notion that any future compensation and benefit increases for elected officials should be attached to increases in the compensation for professional employees is simply wrong.

Taxpayers and voters should remain watchful of the total compensation package value for elected people in public service — not just at the salary itself.

No one is suggesting that local government officials or appointees should be subsidizing the processes of local government out of their own pockets. Appropriate reimbursements are an important necessity.

And this shouldn’t be construed as an indictment of the Santa Clarita City Council’s performance — or that of any other elected body in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Our city beefed up its capital improvement budget at a time when many other cities were scrambling to avoid bankruptcy. It has a fat fund for emergencies and a stellar record for responsible management, particularly of responsible money management.

But you cannot thump your chest about altruistic public service with one fist and snatch a wad of taxpayer greenbacks with the other.

A 16 percent raise over six years during the toughest economic times since the Great Depression tarnishes the council’s accomplishments.

President John F. Kennedy was heralded for saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Public service is an honorable endeavor and an important way to contribute to our country and our community. It’s not a job. Let’s work to keep it that way.


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