Mission Viejo and Bell, Not That Different




Boasting about a city they are proud to call home with clean streets and tranquil neighborhoods, the residents of this City have always been generally happy with the place they call home – the City of Mission Viejo?  No, the City of Bell.  The City Manager of this City has a contract that requires incredibly generous pay unless he is terminated for cause which is limited to conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude – is that Bell?  Mission Viejo?  No, it is BOTH.  Relying on that provision, disgraced and arrested former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo sued the City of Bell last week for wrongful termination.  His argument is that until he is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, the City must continue paying him.  Sound familiar regarding recent events in Mission Viejo with City Manager Dennis Wilberg and Assistant City Manager Keith Rattay?  http://www.orangejuiceblog.com/2011/10/inmates-running-asylum-in-mission-viejo/  The City of Mission Viejo gave City Manager Dennis Wilberg a clause virtually identical to the clause relied upon by Rizzo in his new suit and is still considering a contract for Mr. Rattay with a similar provision.

I had the unique opportunity to visit the City of Bell and meet with City Manager Robert Rizzo before the scandal broke.  I remember clearly talking to Rizzo in his office when he told me, “I make sure that the streets stay clean and the police are present but polite.  I want you to know when you have crossed over the City limit into Bell that you have come into a nice city.”  Truthfully the citizens of Bell were pretty happy with the way their City was being run and had NO idea that they were the subject of one of the worst cases of municipal larceny in history.  My alarm bells only went off once during our meetings and that was when he pulled out the tapes of his racehorses that he had racing around the West Coast.  “How does a small town City Manager afford that?”  I asked myself.  Unfortunately I have had plenty of times when my alarm bells have gone off with local public officials (and trust me, Rizzo was not the only or loudest internal corruption alarm that has gone off in my head), but without proof or knowledge of the circumstances it is difficult to do anything about it.

Rizzo also did a masterful job of keeping his “boss” (the City Council) happy.  Rizzo tightly controlled information flow within the City and to the City Council.  The City Council recognized that they had a happy City and frankly trusted Mr. Rizzo to keep it that way.  When Rizzo started to get really greedy and ramped his salary and benefits up through the stratosphere, he got himself into trouble by concocting schemes that allowed the City Council to start profiting at the expense of the citizenry as well.

In Mission Viejo I think that the general citizenry is pretty happy with the services provided.  We have a beautiful city that is pretty well maintained and it is one of thesafest places in the world to walk the streets.  We have nice amenities that make the citizens proud to call Mission Viejo home.  Without digging deeper, the people of Mission Viejo, much like the pre scandal citizens of Bell, are pretty happy with their world. . .  and then you dig a little deeper.

Based on the words of city staff and the actions of the City Council, it appears that those two groups consider employment with the City of Mission Viejo to be “for life.”  The discussion of the Rattay contract highlighted that belief with discussion that without Rizzo-like protective contractual clauses “another City Council could decide someone is doing a bad job and just fire them.”  Yeah, that is kind of the way it should work.  We are not talking about the bad old days when each election would sweep in the cronies of the winners, we are talking about termination for failure to do your job.  Combine employment for life with “competitive salaries,” and employment with the City of Mission Viejo is looking pretty good with scores of people in the City employ making over $100,000 when they can’t be fired even if they are doing a bad job.

Bloated salaries for City employees is surely not limited to the City of Mission Viejo.  In fact, over the past decade the practice has been to do salary reviews based on what is being paid to similar city employees in the surrounding cities.  In the private world, this would be a valid practice because profitability acts as a limiter to one person overpaying and others trying to match uneconomically justified salaries.  In the private world, if someone is overpaying, it gives a competitive advantage to the rest of the industry and may result in the business failure of the entity overpaying.  Their is no such check in the public employee world.  If one city starts to overpay the rest follow like mindless lemmings going over the cliff of solvency on the theory that the bloated salaries are “competitive.”

Secrecy is the final common element between Bell and Mission Viejo.  Notwithstanding the provisions of the Brown Act, cities are easily able to end run open meeting requirements and conduct business outside of public scrutiny.  In the case of the current Rattay contract, this controversial item has fallen off of the open meeting agenda where it was the subject of scathing criticism and will be quietly talked about tonight in closed session.  It would be nice to see Mission Viejo actually do business in the open, open up its books so that you do not have to be a forensic accountant to see what public employees actually make and to see where and how the City’s money is actually spent.  Funny thing is, before Bell I would have assumed that the Mission Viejo staff was acting in the best interests of the City, now I only hope that.

About Geoff Willis