‘Is a city manager worth $800,000?’ (July 15)

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

The issue presented by the initial story in the Times series appeared to be clear from the headline: “Is a city manager worth $800,000?” Or, more broadly, “what should city managers be paid?”

The trouble with interpreting the issue this way was that the article never offered a conclusion addressing either form of the question. Nor did the article attempt to formulate ways in which the question could be answered.

However, the journalists could have begun answering the question in several ways. For example, they could have outlined what the responsibilities of a city manager were, or what the salaries of comparable jobs in the private sector were, or what Bell residents thought they should pay for the services of a city manager. It would have been important for the reporters to clarify how they meant to calculate the worth of a city manager, because different criteria could lead them to different answers.

Explicitly clarifying their criteria would also have changed the impact of some statements made by city officials quoted in the story. For example, the mayor of Bell was quoted as arguing that the city manager was responsible for Bell being “one of the best [cities] in the area,” and that under Robert Rizzo, the current manager, the city improved its finances, cleaned up the streets, and beautified the parks (7–8). If it were the case that the city manager’s effect on the city were a criterion for determining the manager’s pay, then the mayor’s testimony would potentially have helped justify the salary of at least Rizzo, barring any rebuttals offered by the reporters (of which there were none).

Still, rather than offer a conclusion related to the issue presented in the headline,[1] that of what city managers deserve, the story tacitly pivoted to a second issue: “Do top officials in Bell deserve their current salaries?” But here, again, the reporters did not provide a conclusion related to that question. Without even a basic understanding of how one could decide what city officials should be paid and why, as noted above, little of the information about Bell provided in the story was very useful to readers at the outset.

The best readers could do was infer from the story that the reporters were highly skeptical of the claim that the officials were worth the money. This inference could be drawn from various aspects of the story, including the use of loaded language to describe the officials’ raises (“Top officials have routinely received hefty annual raises” (3)), discussion of the possible illegality of the salaries (14), and from quoting Rizzo as being “unapologetic” about and “defend[ing] his salary and that of his staff” (26).

What reasons and evidence did the reporters use to show that the officials were not worth the money?

They offered three reasons for skepticism. The first reason was that the salaries were among the highest in the nation. The second reason was that an expert in city governments was not aware of any comparable salaries among city officials. The third reason was that the salaries were higher than those for officials in other nearby cities.

The first reason for thinking that the Bell officials did not deserve their salaries was contained in the lede: “Bell, one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, pays its top officials some of the highest salaries in the nation … according to documents reviewed by The Times” (1). The lede contained two main factual statements: That the salaries were actually what the Times said they were, and that the salaries were among “some of the nation’s highest.”

The evidence for the first statement, that the salaries really were what the Times claimed, came from the on-the-record confirmation of them by Rizzo, Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez (7), and Bell Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia (2), and that seemed sufficient.

The second statement, that the salaries were among the nation’s highest, relied for evidence on “documents reviewed by The Times.” However, the reader was never told what those documents were or their source.[2] Because readers didn’t know what documents the reporters reviewed, they also didn’t know how the documents supported the conclusion — for example, were they documents about compensation or documents comparing salaries nationwide?

Paragraph 2 attempted to support the claim by noting that the salary of the Bell Police Chief, Randy Adams, was higher than those of the Los Angeles police chief, Los Angeles County sheriff, and New York City police commissioner. Taking for granted that this was true, the comparison still did not educate readers to the overall ranking of the police chief’s salary. It confirmed only that Adams’s salary was higher than some other police chiefs’, not that it was among the highest of all police chiefs.

If readers accepted the descriptive assumption that, usually, pay for police chiefs (or any city official) should be positively correlated with the city’s population or geographic size, then the comparison did give them some reason to think that the salaries of Adams and other Bell officials were overkill. But the reader was given no basis to accept that descriptive assumption.

Even were some basis for the assumption given, the assumption could still be challenged as simplistic given the possible bases listed above on which city officials’ pay might be structured — the job description or what residents feel comfortable paying — as well as other possible, reasonable ways to calculate that salary, such as merit or, as discussed above, work product.[3]

Yet, should the journalists still find a way to convince readers that pay for city officials be based on population or size, the evidence presented by the journalists could be used equally powerfully to argue that the officials in Los Angeles and New York were simply underpaid, not that Bell officials are overpaid.

Additional comparisons among officials’ salaries came in paragraph 13, which provided the second reason to think that the Bell officials were too high. In paragraph 13, Rizzo’s salary was noted as higher than city officials in Manhattan Beach, “a far wealthier city with about 7,000 fewer people,” and Long Beach, “with a population close to 500,000” (13).[4] The objections to paragraph 2 largely applied here (did readers then know that Rizzo had a nationally-high salary? Were the other officials underpaid?) but, additionally, the reporters themselves were now unclear on the basis they felt salaries should be measured — would the salary have been acceptable if Bell were richer? What if Bell were more populous?[5]

The third reason offered for thinking the Bell salaries were too high came in appeals to expert authority in paragraph 13:

Experts in city government said they were amazed at the salaries the city pays, particularly Rizzo’s. “I have not heard anything close to that number in terms of compensation of salary,” said Dave Mora, West Coast regional director of the International City/County Management Assn., and a retired city manager.

Mora was the only “expert” quoted or even mentioned in the story. So readers had no way to judge whether the appeals to “experts in city government” were reasonable, because nothing was said of the number or qualifications of any experts the reporters talked to.

That said, was Mora’s expert testimony sufficient for the reader to accept that the Bell salaries were among the nation’s highest? The testimony did go some way toward justifying that claim. Readers were told that Mora had a position — with the International City/County Management Association — that sounded like it could be one with special access to knowledge about nationwide city official salaries. But readers needed to assume that Mora himself had such access based on his title. What is a “regional director” and what do they do? No other information about his responsibilities with the association were given. Nor was any reason given to think that having been a city manager would have given him special knowledge in this domain.

Finally, there was one important ambiguity in the story, that of the shorthand “top officials.” The salaries of only the city manager, assistant city manager, and police chief (and, in an aside, the city council) were discussed in the story. The most charitable interpretation of “top officials” would limit itself to those three. However, one could conceive of many potential “top officials,” such as the aforementioned mayor, whose salary was not discussed. If the definition of “top officials” expanded, though, then the evidence in the story would not support the claim that “Bell … pays its top officials some of the highest salaries in the nation” but only that it paid those three officials some of the highest salaries.

The initial story in the Los Angeles Times series, then, gave readers little to accept. It asked a question that it did not attempt to answer or even define how it could be answered. Readers were left to infer from the reporters a possible answer and possible criteria for that answer, none of which were well-supported.

By not attempting to answer how city manager, or public official, salaries should be calculated, the story’s hints that salaries in Bell were too high were also left vulnerable to the counterarguments offered by the mayor and other officials: Rizzo and his staff deserved what they were paid, and you could see the proof by looking out the window.

Readers did not receive any argument about whether the effects of Rizzo’s work in Bell should have defined his salary. But if they should have, the reporters would have had much ground to reclaim in arguing that the Bell officials were overpaid.

An important aside

None of the above critique is meant to deny that there was something intuitively wrong about the city manager of tiny Bell, California receiving a higher salary than the President of the United States. For all the apparent flaws in their arguments, the reporters triggered the recoil associated with that intuition, and for that their work deserved praise and attention. But at the same time, when the weak arguments were stripped from their story, all that appears to remain is the journalistic equivalent of a doctor tapping our knee — or, perhaps, a burglar alarm. Was that worthy of the Pulitzer Prize?

  1. To be sure, copy editors and web producers, not reporters, usually write headlines. So it could be argued in response that because the reporters probably did not write the headline, we could not expect their story to necessarily address the issue it raised; we should instead evaluate the conclusion in their initial paragraphs.  ↩

    This critique would protect the reporters to an extent. It would not particularly help readers, though, who would still be left confused about the message of what they read and then additionally confused about whom to blame. Also, even granting the critique, the reporters were still on the hook for ensuring the conclusions offered in their lede paragraphs were substantiated, which will be addressed shortly.

  2. Paragraph 3 referenced “documents obtained under the California Public Records Act,” but it was unspecified whether those were the same documents referred to in paragraph 1. Even so, it was unclear why those documents would comment on the salaries of public officials nationwide.  ↩

  3. The reporters actually hinted at another basis for determining the acceptability of city officials’ salaries: the law. If nothing else, readers probably could have said that an answer to “What should they be paid?” is that the pay should be legal. But the reporters quoted a member of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office saying that the pay was legal, so that approach wouldn’t have helped justify their conclusion.  ↩

  4. Paragraph 13 also compared Rizzo’s salary to that of the Los Angeles County Chief Executive, but this comparison immediately raised questions of a faulty comparison, given that “county chief executive” and “city manager” are different positions for which readers were given no basis to compare salaries.  ↩

  5. Another way of casting doubt on the comparison with other officials would have been to call them examples of the is-ought fallacy: just because other city officials did have lower salaries than those in Bell need not mean they ought to have had those salaries.  ↩

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