CROCKETT -- Home of the sprawling C&H Sugar Co. on the Carquinez Strait, Crockett has long been known as both charming and rough-and-tumble, sweet with a few cavities around its small-town edges.
Now, it can be hailed as something else: a model of open government.
The Crockett Community Services District was the first to respond this year to the Bay Area News Group's annual request to hundreds of public agencies across the region for compensation data in the newspaper group's ongoing effort to show taxpayers how government is spending their money. Crockett answered the request this year in less than 48 hours.
"We believe in transparency," said the district's general manager, Dale McDonald, who doesn't try to hide that his $71,000 salary made him by far the highest paid of the district's 34 employees in 2012. He cost the district a little more than $80,000 to employ, counting benefits.
The newspaper group began sending out requests on Jan. 8, starting in Contra Costa County, with the rest of the Bay Area to follow. Each of the more than 650 cities, counties, special districts and school districts in the region will receive a request by Feb. 8.
In 2007, the state Supreme Court ruled that salary and compensation data are public records. By law, government agencies have 10 days to respond to public records requests by either releasing the information or saying when it will be made public in a timely manner. While Crockett's lickety-split response stands out, there are plenty of Bay Area cities that are noteworthy for the opposite reason: San Ramon has refused for the past two years to release electronic salary data, insisting the data be copied from paper records. And the region's highest profile city, San Francisco, has claimed it lacks a computer system that can determine the exact cost of compensating individual employees.
Crockett responded Jan. 10, showing it spent a little more than $304,000 last year on the salaries and benefits of employees, most of them part-timers. Nearly 600 public workers across the region in 2011 each received more in total compensation than Crockett's entire 2012 payroll.
Besides McDonald, only one other Crockett employee received a salary of more than $25,000 last year.
The newspaper group will display the 2012 data in its public compensation database beginning in the spring. Last year, more than $34 billion in compensation at 295 entities was displayed.
And this year, with its lightning-quick response, Crockett is setting the example for city halls and school districts from Atherton to Yountville.
Sitting along the strait under a pair of bridges carrying Interstate 80 east and west and wrapped by high hills, Crockett can look like a Pennsylvania mill town as steam pours skyward from the sugar plant. But it's purely California, with vegan cookies for sale in the town's only deli, stunning water views and a growing number of art galleries.
Its 3,000 residents embrace the idea of a small local government. The district provides only sewer and recreation services to Crockett and neighboring Port Costa. A lone Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy is on patrol. Volunteers raise money for landscaping projects.
"We have to find money to spend without putting it on the tax rolls," McDonald said.
Once, more than 25 bars were open around the clock to accommodate factory workers. Now there are two among the vacant storefronts that pock the modest downtown, Club Tac and Toot's Tavern, where the rock band Green Day got its start. An effort to create live-work spaces for artists along Loring Avenue across from the sugar plant never took off.
"It's a town in flux," McDonald said. "It's really become a commuter town."
The pride of Crockett is clearly its recreation department, which maintains a community center, playground, bocce and tennis courts and a swimming pool.
Recreation Director Ron Wilson, 30 years into his job, has overseen a program that has taught generations of children how to swim, a job he takes seriously given the town's waterfront. But on Tuesday, he shared a secret: "I don't know how to swim," he said. "I get in more than 3 feet of water and I sink. But it's my goal to teach every kid to swim."
Crockett has a lengthy maritime heritage. Sugar cane still arrives by ship. Wilson's favorite place in town is the Nantucket, an isolated seafood restaurant with an unpaved parking lot down on the strait beyond the sugar factory, where patrons have to cross busy railroad tracks to reach the front door.
Chuck Dell, a volunteer firefighter who moved here with his wife 12 years ago, said he fell in love with this "quirky little town that time forgot." One of the reasons is the volunteerism that keeps down the costs of government.
"Everybody who volunteers in the community," he said, "has a larger stake in the town than if everything was just done for you.''
Largest business: C&H Sugar Co.
Average home price: $243,000
Namesake: San Francisco judge Joseph B. Crockett, who sold the land on which the town's first home was built
Bars: Club Tac, Toot's Tavern
Claim to fame: Members of the rock band Green Day attended local schools.