Without once mentioning her name, Orange County supervisors on Tuesday conducted public salary negotiations with Santa Barbara County CEO Chandra Wallar.
At least they tried.
The discussion almost immediately turned ugly, with Supervisor Pat Bates declaring, “I’m uncomfortable with discussing a range for the CEO when we are currently in negotiations with a candidate.”
The ride got even bumpier from there.
Bates and Supervisor Janet Nguyen have been appointed as an ad hoc committee to negotiate with Wallar, who is reportedly pushing for a raise over the $253,562 in total compensation that ousted CEO Tom Mauk was paid.
That apparently triggered blowback from Chairman Shawn Nelson, who argued for a cap at the current level. On Tuesday he urged a full public discussion, adding that “I realize it’s awkward, very awkward, to discuss this stuff.”
Nelson said that legislation passed after the Bell scandal mandated that such executive salary discussions occur openly. “We have to address this, … and the law says we have to do it in public,” he said.
The rumors about a raise for the new CEO, even before she’s been hired, drew a virtual job action on the floor of the supervisors’ chambers, with a half dozen labor leaders protesting any increase beyond the CEO position’s current salary.
Lezlee Neebe, president of the Orange County Employees Association, accused county supervisors of concocting a scheme to boost the CEO’s salary to cover the increased costs of requiring the county’s chief executive to pay his or her own employee share of monthly pension contributions as do rank-and-file workers.
Neebe, a longtime employee, told supervisors she believed that Wallar was seeking a 6 percent raise, mainly to cover a required match toward retirement costs.
“The county has never suggested they give their employees, their most valuable asset, the same,” she said. Offering it to a CEO before even beginning the job “just doesn’t look right.”
Wallar informed her colleagues in Santa Barbara County last week about her negotiations with Orange County after Voice of OC broke the news.
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer seemed largely to agree with Nelson’s position on total compensation. “We really need to test the waters on where the board is on salary,” said Spitzer, acknowledging state law.
That drew a sharp response from Bates, who called the approach putting “the cart before the horse.”
Bates said salary discussions should be kept private and that a final package would come to supervisors for approval, along with a justification for any increase.
Bates then noted that Orange County had one of the lowest salaries among surrounding counties its size, such as San Diego ($313,000), Riverside ($312,000), San Bernardino ($331,000) and Santa Clara ($309,000).
While she denied any requests to hike CEO benefits, she did confirm that “right now, there’s some issues regarding employee pickup.”
Spitzer took issue with Neebe’s accusations, firing back that “no one’s concocted anything” on salary negotiations and challenging her comments as inflammatory.
“You can see we’re straining to do what we’re trying to do,” Spitzer said. “How we deliberate on the CEO’s salary will be done in public.”
After Spitzer criticized Neebe, OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino came after him.
“Do I think a scheme will be concocted? Yes,” Berardino said, criticizing a series of executive and supervisor perks such car allowances, retirement pickups and civil service jobs for political aides.
“All these benefits have been concocted,” Berardino said. “All you’ve done is concocted it on the backs of working men and women. You think we’re dumb?”
Spitzer brought the discussion to a close by acknowledging that executive compensation had far-reaching impacts on employee morale. He also seemingly indicated a temperature reading of the negotiations when he declared, “It’s all about consistency and morale. You cannot ask the CEO not to pick [retirement costs] up.”