Commentary – Quentin L. Kopp

It is Not ‘Public Service’

By Quentin L. Kopp

James F. Byrnes, a member of Congress from South Carolina, 1911-1925 and 1930-1944, and later secretary of state by appointment of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, observed in 1947: “The nearest approach to immortality on Earth is a government bureau.”

Nowhere is that bromide better observed than San Francisco and its newly-adopted $11 billion budget for each of the next two fiscal years. Concomitantly with that occurrence is a city employee population of more than 30,000.

I’m reminded of such facts as I read facile news reporters and headline writers employing the term “public service.”

This month, for example, a woman, who began as the late Harvey Milk’s campaign manager and was hired in 1978 as his administrative assistant, retires as executive officer of the Department of Emergency Management. She previously was an administrative assistant to the general manager of the SF Public Utilities Commission, deputy director of the Art Commission, director of the Criminal Justice Council and deputy director of Public Health.

The word “service” represents a misnomer. She worked supposedly for taxpayers and will soon receive a sturdy pension for such “service.”

It’s not just San Francisco. In San Mateo, a new county manager was engaged by the board of supervisors, whose president referred to the new county manager as a person with “… a passion for public service.” He’ll net a $332,800 annual base salary, plus transportation allowance and other benefits, after 29 years with the San Mateo Police Department and a resultant pension.

Certainly, taxpayers want competent public employees, just like Apple, Google, Facebook, General Electric, General Motors, AT&T and Standard Oil of California.

Wordsmithing government employees with “public service” conveys the notion of lower pay and lower benefits. That’s untrue, but the cliche is so engrained in news coverage that elimination of such a misplaced notion is impossible.

That reminds me of an analysis in September 2016 of the National Bureau of Economic Research performed by Mitchell Hoffman and Elizabeth Lyons. They note it’s a “basic principle of economics that people respond to incentives – but they don’t always respond in the way that you would think.”

Increased pay for public officials occurs with the contention that it produces more qualified candidates, closely contested elections and improved performance. Hoffman and Lyons discover, as Daniel Akst noted in the Wall Street Journal two years ago: “Higher legislator salaries are associated with more time spent trolling for campaign contributions, particularly on fundraising for themselves.”

Higher politician compensation resulted in legislators spending less time on legislative responsibilities. It also gives politicians more incentive for re-election.

California legislators, incidentally, make more than $101,000 a year and receive per diem payments while in session for seven or eight months. (Texas legislators are paid $7,200 annually.) It may sound self-serving, but upon my election to the SF Board of Supervisors in 1971, the salary was $9,324 per year; in 1982 voters raised it to $23,000, and after the “new” SF Charter was adopted in the ’90s, it has risen to $110,000 per year with 30 days vacation in August and further pay from regional agency membership.

Are the candidates better? Is performance better?

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote a friend: “If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence [sic] of taking care of them, they must become happy.”

Six months ago, the best investigation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s assets and probable emoluments from being president emanated from Forbes magazine. Most readers know of his hotels in Washington, D.C., Florida, Russia and India, fostering for prospective guests a relationship with the chief executive himself and executive branch agencies. There’s also his New York City real estate, such as 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 40 Wall St., Trump Tower, Trump Park Avenue New York and Trump Plaza New York.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, additionally, that he also owns strong financial interest in 315 Montgomery St. and 555 California St. (originally called the Bank of America Building).

Such tenants as Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, UBS Financial Services and Dodge & Cox constitute recognizable big corporations that were federal contractors or lobbied the federal government in 2017 or were known to be foreign government- owned. Some were even known to be under federal investigation during Trump’s presidency.

Jefferson would be as unforgiving of such presidential conduct as you and I.

Quentin Kopp is a member of the SF Ethics Commission.

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