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Ruffalo: Regional council improves lawyer’s lot on our dime

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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How many messages do we have to send before the elected and appointed officials understand that they’re spending way too much of our money? Obviously the people of SACOG haven’t gotten the word, or else they just don’t care how we feel. SACOG is an acronym for Sacramento Area Council of Governments, another of those seemingly endless regional lash-ups that our politicos love. After all, the more of these regional gigs can be created, the more warm and cozy refuges former and current elected officials can find gainful employment. If my recollection of history is correct, SACOG was first cobbled together as a way to solve regional transportation and air-pollution problems, and the enviros love it because it’s yet another way to toss a roadblock at anybody foolish enough to think he or she can put forth a proposed project. In truth, former Placer County Supervisor — and former SACOG member — Ron Lichau probably has the correct term when he insists upon calling the group “Stayclogged” because of its ineptness in solving even the simplest transportation dilemma. Meanwhile, SACOG used its December meeting to toss another bundle of taxpayers’ money at two of its favored members — Executive Director Mike McKeever and attorney Kirk Trost. Simply put, in a near-unanimous vote, SACOG improved Trost’s life by changing him from a contract attorney to house counsel, complete with a nice raise in his annual income. Auburn City Councilman Kevin Hanley, who cast the lone vote in opposition, correctly pointed out that Trost Esq. was doing quite well without the promotion and — more important — SACOG was paying only for work Trost actually performed. Now the attorney gets paid rather well whether he actually works or not, and makes even more money for the privilege of doing so. But, wait, it gets better, although not for us taxpayers. According to the barest of minutes, which by the way are not available on SACOG’s website, the sheep-like board then went and handed McKeever a rather nice boost in his contractual remuneration. McKeever’s Dec. 9 letter to the board said he was being paid $193,000 per year with approximately $28,000 in additional benefits for a total of $221,500. But, he added, a self-conducted survey showed “executive directors of the three other largest regional agencies (not further identified) in the state are paid an average total compensation of $265,000 ...” He went on to write that if there was a healthy boost in his pay, “I think this puts the organization in a better position whenever the time comes to replace me.” Talk about a joke begging for a punchline! What better time to replace him than now? But I digress. The upshot of McKeever’s modest request was that he felt he was doing way too much work, and — according to remarks during the December meeting — getting a full-time in-house counsel would help alleviate some of that extra work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t done. His letter said that after reflection, he concluded he “would really like to continue working at SACOG for several more years.” Who wouldn’t? Then came the fast-breaking pitch. “Again, I identified personal tiredness as the biggest threat to being able to (remain with SACOG),” he wrote. And being the capable leader that he is, he went on to propose a solution, namely a three-year “phased reduction in work hours. This approach would both increase balance and quality in my life immediately, as well as have the side effect of increasing my hourly pay by 5 percent a year, which would result in a larger retirement benefit,” then added that if the board went along with this, it would “effectively address the workload problem and extend my career at SACOG.” Is it just me, or did that last item come off more as a threat than a request? Be that is it may, the board bought into it completely, other than Hanley, of course. And among the lambs lining up and bleatingly voting for the beneficial package was already defeated Placer County Supervisor Rocky Rockholm who, perhaps thought of giving the voters a little going-away present. So let’s review here. What SACOG did was improve a lawyer’s lot in life, doing so when it would have been far more economical to keep things as they were. Then the board compounded its error by giving its executive director (now titled chief operating officer) a hefty increase in salary while at the same time decreasing his workload. Not bad for government work. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs on Sundays. Reach him at jimruffalo@yahoo.com.