Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Attitude of Arrogance
Breeds A Culture Of Corruption

by Dean Stephens
Colerain, NC

A County Manager is a public employee who is often the subject of controversy. Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb is no different. However, it is usually positions on public issues rather than a manager’s salary that causes the conflict. That has changed. This time Lamb and the commissioners are on the hot seat for a pay raise that has people on all sides of the political spectrum upset. Public records indicate that he will be paid $144,000 in the coming year, or a 42% raise over his salary last year.

A 42 percent pay increase in one year? It is claimed this was done based on a renegotiation of his contract. That answer does not satisfy me. Does it satisfy you? It is not Mr. Lamb who I am upset with. It is our County Commissioners. The following is why.

In a time of national economic crisis, with the federal budget running nearly 1.5 trillion dollars in the red, with national unemployment more than 9% (actually more than 15% if you count people who have exhausted benefits or young people whose unemployment is nearly one out of every two because they cannot find starting jobs) our nation is close to the hardship levels of the depression era. At this time, how can our County Commissioners think that any public employee deserves a 42% raise? The Bertie Commissioners claim they gave him the raise in 2009, so they could not plan for today’s tough economic times. Have they been asleep at the wheel? The economy was even worse in 2009 than today. Plus they have denied all other county employees any raise at all. Do they really not understand how inappropriate this huge raise is?

The attitude is reminiscent of a comment by a union official when excessive federal pay and retirement benefits became an issue. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said the comparison was faulty because it "compares apples and oranges." She insisted federal accountants, for example, perform work that has more complexity and requires more skill than accounting work in the private sector. What? Does anyone really think that public accounting is more complex than tax accounting requirements in the private sector? As a former CFO who had to hire tax accountants -- I will challenge that assumption as unmitigated arrogance. And that is the problem.

Arrogance is a typical characteristic of government today. Recently that led to an example in Bell, California, where every Commissioner except one participated in a scheme to pad their $6,400 salary through hidden committees with hidden compensation. Except for that one commissioner who only got the standard salary, all others were receiving pay that increased their compensation up to more than $100,000 a year. This attitude, left unchecked, resulted in the Bell City Manager manipulating the system to receive more than $1.5 million in pay and providing for an early retirement of $800,000 a year, for life. FYI, Bell California is only slightly larger than Bertie County.

We have seen this same pattern of arrogance leading to corruption in Bertie before. A former School Superintendent, John Smith, started to spend our money as if it was his own. When the auditors caught him, he expressed regret and offered to reimburse the county for personal gifts he had given to friends and relatives and charged to the county. A supporter insisted that the offer to repay meant he had done nothing wrong. County Attorney Lloyd Smith was asked to comment on this offer and he provided an analogy that I still remember. "If you rob a bank, but offer to return the money when you are caught, does that mean you did nothing wrong?"

Today, public employees are paid more than employees in private business. They get significantly better benefits. They get outrageously better retirements at earlier ages. That did not use to be true. Since it is much harder to fire poor public employees, it used to be true that pay, benefits and retirement was less than private employees. This was in exchange for the greater job security, easier working conditions and certainty that retirement was not going to be taken away because of a company going bankrupt. All those are still true. So why has public pay gone up?

I contend it is related to the arrogance of public officials forgetting that they are doing the people's business. This arrogance always leads to corruption over time. There is no indication we have returned to the corruption of the earlier Bertie official, yet I cannot fathom how our County Commissioners thought a 42% raise was not an intolerable violation of their public trust. If not reversed, I predict corruption is where it will lead.

I don't see that Mr. Lamb did anything wrong. In any negotiation, everyone has the right to ask for whatever they can get. It is our Bertie County Commissioners who have made the mistake. This raise they appropriated for Mr. Lamb is outrageous. With their attitude, what other mistakes are they going to make with our money? How long will it be before they think like the Commissioners in Bell California?


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