Richard Reeves

Why We Need Local Reporting

LOS ANGELES — Last Thursday was an interesting news day around here — and one that highlighted the importance of local reporting as newspapers fade away across the country.

A woman named Angela Spaccia was sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined $8 million for 11 felonies. She was fraudulently being paid $564,000 as the assistant city manager of the small and poor municipality of Bell in the southern part of Los Angeles. Her boss, Robert Rizzo, the city administrator, who has pleaded no contest to a score of felonies, was making $1.5 million a year. The two of them were going to be paid more than a million dollars a year in pensions.

"Her weapon is not the weapon that I usually see in cases that come before me," said Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy as she pronounced sentence. "It's not a gun; it's not a knife. It's the trust that people had in her."

This had been going on for years and would still be going on if a news clerk at the Los Angeles Times had not heard something from a friend. Two reporters, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, investigated and shared the bylines on a series of stories in 2010 that led to Spaccia's trial. More often than not, it is gritty local reporting that enforces trust.

The same day that Spaccia was sentenced, in another part of the county, a more prosperous area, the Centinela Valley Union High School District board suspended the district superintendent, Jose Fernandez. He was being paid more than $670,000 a year for managing three high schools in the municipalities of Hawthorne and Lawndale. He also received a $910,000 loan from the district, at 2 percent annual interest, for a 40-year mortgage on a four-bedroom house.

This time the story broke in the Daily Breeze, a 75,000-circulation daily headquartered in Torrance. The reporter who broke the story was Rob Kuznia, the paper's education reporter. He found the story by going through a new Los Angeles County Office of Education database of school records. If he had not been there to do that, it probably never would have become public.

Fernandez, according to local sources, was doing a pretty good job. I hope so, for the sake of the 6,600 students in the district, since he was being paid more than John Deasy, the superintendent of schools in the Los Angeles Unified District, which has more than 650,000 students, who is paid $393,000. He was making more than New York City's school chancellor, Carmen Farina, who gets $412,000 a year. Fernandez, in fact, was making more than President Obama, who is paid more than $500,000 a year in total compensation.

Fernandez, by the way, is being paid while suspended.

When he was hired in 2008, Fernandez, who had been a financial officer in the district, was paid $163,000 per year. His contract also specified that he would be required to work only 215 days a year and if he did more, he was on overtime. Nice, huh?

In his first piece in February, Kunzia wrote: "The revelations about Fernandez's compensation package come at a time when State Controller John Chiang is calling for more transparency among California school districts about superintendent salaries. Last week, he began asking every public school district for compensation documents. ... Chiang has been putting together a user-friendly database listing the salary and benefits of California public employees ever since the scandal in the tiny city of Bell, where city leaders hid their exorbitant pay packages from the public."

So the story came full circle. But there was a story. That's the point. There will be fewer and fewer stories like these unless new media, digital sites and all that, are willing to train and pay people to roam the streets and see if the emperor is wearing any clothes.

Column Archive

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