‘Big benefits boosted Bell official’s take’ (August 8)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

The headline on this story hinted at the major issue it addressed: What was the true value of Robert Rizzo’s compensation package, taking into account not just his salary but also benefits? (Or, “How much was Rizzo really paid?”)

The conclusion was a plain and descriptive one: “$1,540,299.96” (9). The evidence for this conclusion was the Times’s review of “city records requested … under the California Public Records Act.”

Because the nature of the documents was not described in the story, and the documents themselves were not quoted, readers were more or less forced to take the truth of the reporters’ math on the reporters’ authority.[1] Whether to do so in this case would be up to the reader. But the reporters described the records in some detail, which lent credence to their argument. For example, although they noted that the documents said Rizzo received “107 vacation days and 36 sick days a year,” they also acknowledged that the documents “don’t specifically say he would be paid for each of these days” (10).

Granting that the reporters had a fairly strong case regarding the nature of Rizzo’s compensation, they did their position a disservice with their paraphrase of James Casso, then Bell’s interim city attorney: “Casso said city officials were still trying to understand the compensation agreement” (10).

The sentence immediately seemed strange. The Times reporters apparently had no trouble understanding the agreement, or at least were confident enough in their understanding to make claims about it.[^hedge2] Was there some sort of difference between the reporters and Casso that allowed the reporters to understand the documents for their purposes, but that wouldn’t have helped Casso? (One is reminded of Toulmin’s field-dependency thesis.) Why didn’t the Times share its analysis with the attorney and report the response? (Or did they share it?) Were the methodologies different? And so on.

These questions are meant to say that whatever claim to expert authority about the compensation agreement that the reporters might have had, based on their study of the documents, was weakened by their inclusion of a more cautious statement by someone almost certainly familiar with such documents and what they said. Including the statement by Casso was undoubtedly helpful to readers because it alerted them that the reporters’ understanding of the compensation agreement was not canonical.

In fairness to the reporters, Casso was quoted as saying that “It appears Rizzo was getting an inordinate amount of hours of vacation and sick benefits and being paid for it” (4). But the situation was still a head-scratcher; it might have led readers to wonder why the reporters didn’t put forward a slightly weaker conclusion in the first place.

The story also approached a second issue: How did Rizzo’s compensation package compare to those of other city managers?

Admittedly, it gets tiresome to continue analyzing these sorts of issues — trying to establish that Rizzo and co were paid unusually highly. Once again, the reporters’ diligence led them to statistics that hit readers like a hook to the jaw. $1.5 million? Any half-awake reader would likely have known that such salaries were unheard of in this context. Must we continue?

And yet, in this story the reporters practically begged the reader to approach their second issue with a critical eye. They even used the word “evidence” for the first time in conjunction with one of their conclusions: “There is evidence Rizzo’s deal was exorbitant” (15).

So, onward. What evidence did the reporters have to show that Rizzo’s total compensation was “exorbitant”? There were two sources of evidence to support the claim. The first came from comparisons to two other city managers and the changes in total compensation their benefits created:

For example, the total compensation of Arcadia’s city manager went from $220,000 to $272,000 when benefits and deferred compensation were added, according to city records. In Redondo Beach, the city manager’s total compensation went from $211,000 to $254,000 when benefits were added, according to city records. (16)

But nothing further was said about why these two cities were indicative of anything beyond themselves, as it were. Why were Arcadia and Redondo Beach appropriate places to compare with Bell? Something about their population size? The city managers’ responsibilities or length of service? Without any additional context or reason to think the situations analogous, these comparisons were practically meaningless. They certainly didn’t assist readers in confirming that Rizzo’s salary was exorbitant.[2]

The other form of evidence was an appeal to expert testimony in the returning form of Dave Mora. The same qualifications were presented: “West Coast regional director of the International City/County Management Assn. and a retired city manager” (6). Did those positions put Mora in a position to have special knowledge about the relative lucrativeness of Rizzo’s compensation? It’s difficult to say, but that in itself casted doubt on the appeal of the expert. Readers still knew little about his position as “West Coast regional director” or what it entailed.

Having been a city manager did lend weight to his claim that the deal “‘is extraordinary, it is outlandish and in absolutely no way represents’ normal compensation for city managers” (4). But it is still fair to ask: When was he a city manager? Where? It seems possible that, for example, norms for compensation packages have changed since his time in office. Readers simply lacked enough information to decide with much certainty whether Mora had the background required to make the claim.

In sum, readers of this story could walk away from it fairly confident that they had been accurately told about the way something — Rizzo’s earnings — used to be. The attempts to also place those earnings into a larger context were more troublesome, however. Readers more forgiving toward the use of expert sources might be more willing than others readers to accept the conclusion presented in the second issue, owing as it did to questionable authority and a weak use of analogy.

  1. As of this writing, the documents were not linked to in the story on the Times website (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/bell/la-me-bell-benefits–20100808,0,4453070.story). The reporters did hedge a bit in their description, saying that the total compensation they calculated according to the records “included some unspecified benefits” (9).  ↩

  2. The question of whether the city managers in Arcadia and Redondo Beach are simply under-compensated also returns.  ↩


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