The Public Eye: The City Manager’s Raise: Fact and Fiction

By Zelda Bronstein
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 07:12:00 PM

On Feb. 2 Mayor Bates told the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce that “falling real estate transfer taxes and property taxes will force the city to cut about $4.5 million from city services in the next two years…’ The next year scares the bejesus out of me.’”  

—The Berkeley Voice, Feb. 6 


As I predicted (“The Public Eye,” Jan. 22), on Jan. 27 the Berkeley City Council approved Mayor Bates’ request to raise City Manager Phil Kamlarz’s monthly salary from $17,903 to $19,335, or from $214,836 to $232,020 a year, plus benefits. Berkeley staffers’ benefits amount to about 50 percent of their salaries. Kamlarz also receives an annual “Longevity Pay Differential” worth 3 percent of his salary, awarded to him by the council last October, acting on his recommendation. 

Contrary to my prediction, the council split its vote, 6-2-1. The two nays were cast by Kriss Worthington and newcomer Jesse Arreguin, the lone abstention by the other new councilmember, Susan Wengraf.  

Wengraf said that though she admired Kamlarz, she wasn’t competent to vote on the raise for two reasons: She had just arrived on the council, and she wasn’t privy to the the council subcommittee evaluation of the city manager’s performance. Those findings had apparently been communicated by word of mouth in a council meeting closed to the public. 

In fact, Wengraf is no stranger to City Hall, having served for 16 years as council aide to Betty Olds, her immediate predecessor in office. If she had objected to having been left in the dark—as well she should have—her abstention would have come across as a principled stand. Instead, it looked like an opportunistic gesture directed toward her fiscally conservative council district in the north Berkeley hills. 

Worthington and Arreguin did take a principled position, arguing that the subcommittee assessment should have been conveyed in writing. Absent a written report, Worthington contended, it would be “totally irresponsible” for the council to raise Kamlarz’s salary.  

Since the city manager works for the council, challenging him shouldn’t take an act of courage. But it does. Though the city charter gives the council ultimate power over the city’s purse, the Bates council majority has effectively abdicated to Kamlarz in budgetary matters. Cross him, especially when his own pay is at stake, and he may very well nix your pet projects.  

So we should be grateful to Worthington and Arreguin for having the wherewithal to demand some accountability. That said, the public is entitled to far more accountability than they demanded. And to the public’s credit, four citizens speaking at public comment asked the council to reject the proposed raise. All four argued that a severe recession is no time to be handing out raises to any city employee.  

Scandalously, the council’s Agenda Committee had placed the proposed pay raise on the body’s consent calendar, where it would have been approved without a word. But when more than three members of the public address an item that’s “on consent,” the matter automatically moves onto the “action” agenda, where it must be openly discussed and voted upon. The testimony of the four citizens forced the mayor and his allies to defend their support for the city manager’s raise in public. The rationales offered by the Bates majority ranged from the merely counterfactual to the blatantly absurd. 

In the counterfactual category, there was the claim, first made by the mayor and reiterated by Councilmember Maio, that if Kamlarz didn’t get this raise, he would retire, because he would get as much in retirement as he did working as city manager. “He’s working as a volunteer,” said Bates. 

No, he’s not. The retirement pay of non-uniformed City of Berkeley employees is calculated by multiplying the employee’s highest annual City salary times 2.7 percent times the number of years the employee has worked for the City. Kamlarz has been with the City for 32 years. Multiply 32 by 2.7 percent, and you get 86.4 percent. That’s the percentage of his salary that Kamlarz would receive if he retired this year, regardless of his salary’s size.  

To get more in retirement than in your salary, you have to work for the City for 37 years. Given Kamlarz’ public campaign to have his compensation spiked over the past year—the raise he got on Jan. 27 appears to have been his third since last June, and he is due for a cost-of-living raise this coming June—don’t be surprised if he’s retired by early 2010.  

Another fanciful argument, also advanced by the mayor, was that Kamlarz deserved this raise because his skillful management had earned Berkeley “the highest bond rating in the United States.” Echoing this theme, Councilmember Capitelli asserted that “we are in better fiscal shape than any other jurisdiction in the Bay Area.” 

To check out these claims, I called Standard & Poor’s headquarters in New York. In December 2007 Standard & Poor’s raised Berkeley’s rating from AA- to AA. Turns out that AA is the third highest bond rating available to cities. AA+ is higher; AAA is the highest. In an e-mail, the Standard & Poor’s representative stated: “[W]e have numerous ‘AAA’ and ‘AA+ cities in California. If you only need one example, San Jose is rated’AAA.’” So are Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. So much for Berkeley’s superlative fiscal status.  

When it came to absurdity, Capitelli was the hands-down winner with his suggestion “that managing our community is probably one of the most challenging jobs in the state, if not in the country.” Really? More challenging than, say, managing Oakland or Los Angeles, Chicago or New Orleans? 

But the most telling remarks were made by the mayor, as he explained why he waited until 2009 to propose Kamlarz’ latest raise. It would have been “controversial” to have brought the proposal forward last year, he said, because the council was then raising other city employees’ salaries “at much lower rates.” Thanks to the expeditious timing, “none of the unions object” to increasing the city manager’s salary in 2009. Surveying the council chamber, Bates observed with satisfaction that no union representatives were present. 

Nobody on the council had the wit, guts or decency to point out that of course the unions didn’t object to raising Kamlarz’ pay. The more he gets, the more their members do—and vice versa. Nor did any of the electeds note that since City staff work for the C.M. and not for the council, it would be a brave City employee indeed who openly challenged his boss’s request for a raise.  

As for the citizens’ objections to raising City pay during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the closest anyone on the dais came to a reply was the mayor. “The timing is never right to raise somebody’s salary,” said Bates.  

On the contrary, the record shows that in Berkeley City Hall, the timing is never wrong.