Allen: Why the county executive should stop gaslighting critics of ‘hero’ pay
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith speaks to reporters at the County Government Building in this file photo.

Having watched the volleying between San Jose mayoral candidate Matt Mahan and the taxpayer-funded Santa Clara County CEO and his union allies on ‘hero’ pay, I felt it was time for somebody old and objective to step in and make a few observations.

County Executive Jeff Smith embarrassed himself in his Mercury News op-ed that the highest and best use for a $76 million windfall from the federal government is to provide bonuses to every Santa Clara County employee regardless of function, role or whether they were affected adversely by COVID. Let’s take Dr. Smith’s points in order.

First, he starts with the presumption that all 22,000 employees are heroes. Merriam-Webster defines a hero as, “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.” I believe Mahan has acknowledged that frontline workers at Valley Med and the county’s various clinics, firefighters, sheriff deputies, jail guards and others who had no choice but to come to work and face COVID head-on without the benefit of a vaccine are heroic. But what about the thousands of employees in many other county functions that closed during COVID or went to completely remote or work from home operations, but were still paid?

Even today you can go to the county’s website and learn that “…some non-essential, in-person county services remain suspended to help slow the spread of COVID-19.” I assume these employees still got paid, but we’re being asked to believe everyone who got a pass on providing non-essential services deserves a bonus.

Dr. Smith then attempts to slime Mahan with the Trump anti-government stench and peevishly characterizes him as a “junior” San Jose city councilman. Surprisingly sophomoric language from such a highly educated man, but it doesn’t really hold up to reason. Wasn’t Barack Obama a “junior” senator before he became president? I suspect Dr. Smith liked his ideas despite his youth. It’s as if Dr. Smith is saying, “leave the squandering of free money from the feds to us sonny.”

Mahan wasn’t advocating that the county give the money back. If he had, that would be anti-government. Rather, he argued that the money should be spent on other priorities like, you know, dealing with a profound homeless problem exacerbated by COVID. That sounds like the same amount of government. Or maybe even better government.

Dr. Smith then wants to take credit for the county’s progress against COVID as support for his bonus-a-palooza, but didn’t solicit the input of the almost 1.5 million citizens who made his job substantially easier by promptly getting their vaccines and abiding by his health director’s various mandates.

The final defense is especially disingenuous. Dr. Smith claims the typical county employee is a professional woman of color who makes about $100,000 per year, but he oversimplifies the situation. He is correct to infer that people of color are the county government’s lowest compensated employees, and there are thousands of them and the majority are women. But he neglects to mention that the county’s own pay equity dashboard indicates the highest compensated employees in county government are white and comprise 20% of the workforce.

Reviewing govsalaries.com reveals thousands of employees of all ethnicities who are paid more than $200,000 per year, and a mind-blowing number who make over $300,000 per year. Now I’m not questioning whether these highly compensated folks are doing important work as public servants, but it is just absurd to claim everybody’s heroic and deserves a bonus so they can just have a cup of coffee every day when there are so many obviously unmet needs in the county.

It’s especially frustrating to see Dr. Smith and his highly compensated bureaucracy umbilically aligned with self-interested union leaders who vilify Mahan for raising a few questions about a thanks-for-showing-up bonus scheme. Aren’t Dr. Smith and his staff responsible for negotiating union contracts? After this debacle, it doesn’t take a law degree to recognize that is not going to go well for the taxpayer.

Brian Allen remains a disillusioned independent voter who’s even more disappointed in the governance and management of Santa Clara County.

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