Dear Editor- Does This Ring A (Bell) ?

Dear Editor,

If you’ve been reading about the city of Bell lately, your first reaction might be gratitude that you live in a place like Culver City instead.

Unfortunately, while we’re certainly not Bell, we’re not as different as you might think, and certainly not as different as we ought to be. Bell had a City Manager who earned $800,000 per year. Until the regime ended in 2009, Culver City had the following:

(1) A CITY MANAGER, JERRY FULWOOD, OF QUESTIONABLE COMPETENCE AND REPREHENSIBLE ETHICS, COMPENSATED WELL OVER $200,000 PER YEAR. Reprehensible ethics? Well, as just one example, Fulwood asked Culver City to pay for his son’s police academy training, on the premise that when it was over, our city would gain a fine new police officer. The City Council agreed to this most unusual request. When Fulwood’s son completed his training courtesy of Culver City taxpayers, he remained on the force for less than a week before departing for a higher-paying position elsewhere. We, the people, got fleeced.

(2) A SECOND ASSISTANT CITY MANAGER, MARLEE CHANG, COMPENSATED OVER $180,000 PER YEAR. (Before Fulwood, there had always been just one Assistant.) Ms. Chang lacked even a college degree, and before Fulwood’s arrival was a low-to-mid-level staff member in the Budget Office. Fulwood promoted her rapidly, first to Budget Manager, then to Controller, then to Assistant City Manager. As she rose, it did not become apparent to managers in City Hall what productive work Ms. Chang actually did. The “Controller” is ostensibly the official who oversees all accounting operations, but at that time, before the City Charter was changed, accounting (except for the budget) was entirely under the control of the City Treasurer’s Office, so Ms. Chang had little to oversee. After holding the Controller position for some time, Ms. Chang still had to ask whether the city had a cash or accrual accounting system (which is a bit like being manager of the Dodgers while not knowing which way players are supposed to run around the basepaths.) Later, as Assistant City Manager, she was given the supposed responsibility of overseeing Risk Management, but a consultant soon had to be brought in to “assist’’ Ms. Chang in doing those duties, this despite the fact that, pre-Fulwood, the duties had been handled by one lower-level manager, at a small fraction of the combined salary paid to Ms. Chang and the consultant. Now, one could speculate that the lack of any awareness of Ms. Chang doing productive work could be because she served some kind of “confidante” type role, meaning her important work took place behind closed doors–just her and Jerry Fulwood. But only the two of them would know for sure why he so wanted her working under him.

(3) A CONSULTANT, HIRED FOR SEVERAL MONTHS PURELY TO CONSOLIDATE POWER INTO JERRY FULWOOD’S HANDS, WITH COMPENSATION AT AN ANNUALIZED RATE SURELY OVER $150,000. Prior to the City Charter change, Fulwood had no formal control over most financial operations—the elected City Treasurer oversaw accounting, tax collection and investments, essentially everything except the budget. This did not please Fulwood, and he set out to diminish the power of the City Treasurer’s Office. Fulwood sought to create a “pretend” world, for City Council’s benefit, in which important financial work (beyond budgeting) was done out of his office, for example by giving Ms. Chang the title of Controller, and commensurate salary, without any of the duties. The consultant’s role in this was to prepare an extensive management audit critical of the City Treasurer’s Office—with no input or feedback whatsoever from that very Office. This unusual approach practically defines a hatchet job; it would be unthinkable in any organization actually interested in operational improvement. The consultant’s taxpayer-paid months-long effort instead went purely to further the power-consolidation interests of Jerry Fulwood. It’s a job, and a highly-paid one, which should never have existed.

Culver City thereby came to have three people all paid solely in the personal interest of Jerry Fulwood. One was not known to do much useful, while the other’s “work” was destructive. The total salary for the three was over $450,000 per year, and total compensation likely surpassed $600,000. Fulwood, Chang and the consultant, paid $600,000 to do at most the job of a single City Manager among them, thus put Culver City uncomfortably close to Bell, where the City Manager was paid not quite $800,000.

The effects of all this go beyond the three overpaid people in one job. What Fulwood’s actions made clear to managers was that rewards were not going to come from competency and merit. When the atmosphere is poisoned in this manner, the incompetent and the unethical take over ever more positions. How? Well, the remaining capable people have to be honest with their capable friends who work in other cities—when openings appear in Culver City, they are unlikely to recommend to those friends that they put in an application. Over time, the Fulwood types thus take over, and then they are nearly impossible to root out. We are fortunate that in Culver City, a number of good people have nonetheless stayed despite the conditions they faced.

The fallout from the Fulwood disaster has not ended. It is very likely that Culver City will soon have to lay off employees. Whether they are police officers, firefighters, Senior Center staff, or managers and clerical staff who work behind the scenes, they provide important services to Culver City citizens, and those services won’t be provided when they are gone. There is also the enormous damage layoffs do to their lives and careers. How many of these layoffs would have been prevented, how many lives kept whole, if those many hundreds of thousands of dollars had not been wasted paying Ms. Chang and the consultant? Certainly several average employees’ jobs could have been saved at least for a while.

Perhaps you want to follow the lead of the citizens of Bell, and march on City Hall. You should know that when Fulwood, despite it all, was appointed for the second time, he was supported by Council members Alan Corlin, Steve Rose and Scott Malsin. Corlin and Rose are no longer on the Council; Fulwood and Chang, like the Bell officials, have retired on very large pensions. Scott Malsin remains on the Council. While the politicians mentioned here didn’t receive financial benefit from the situation, they no doubt received large ego rewards by not admitting to themselves that Fulwood, including ongoing aftereffects, was a disaster for which they were responsible. It’s too bad these ego rewards were so expensive for so many people.

Anyway, I guess we can’t be too smug about Bell.

Ken Alexander

The Actors' Gang

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