Plain English, free cars and a (generous) perk cap…

We’re getting into that time of year when the filings flow fast and furious, and that means we find a lot of smaller items that are odd, interesting or funny, but may not be worth a full post on their own. Today, we’ve got a bunch of items showing that restraint is not yet dead in corporate America, at least on a small scale:

Score one for clarity: We were browsing through the 10-K that Crown Castle International (CCI) filed yesterday, and kept having the inescapable feeling that something was amiss — the filing was more readable than your typical filing. Sure enough, when we looked closer, we realized the company had, throughout the filing, replaced the so-vague-it’s-almost-meaningless term “wireless infrastructure” with the blunt and descriptive word “towers” or the nearly as good “cell sites.” Here’s a half-sentence from one of the company’s risk factors, compared to how it appeared last year, about how customer consolidation “may result in a reduction of wireless infrastructure cell sites and impact revenues from our wireless infrastructure towers.” Even more impressive, we don’t see any sign that this was prompted by a comment letter from the SEC (which, as far as we can tell, has all but abandoned Arthur Levitt’s plain-English campaign, even if he hasn’t).

Less golf? Nearly five years ago, Michelle wrote a timeless piece about vice chairmen, those august but often superfluous statesmen (and, more rarely, women) of the board. Things may actually be improving on that front, at least if you assume vice chairmen aren’t particularly necessary: There were 21,967 uses of the term in the filings last year, compared to 26,420 in 2007, according to a quick search we did of Morningstar Document Research’s SEC filings database. Of course, companies may just be saying less about their vice chairmen, but at least one — Hanger Orthopedic Group (HGR) — actually eliminated the position in the amended bylaws it filed with an 8-K last week.

(No) free parking: It probably isn’t terribly surprising that Auto Nation (AN), a national chain of car dealerships, gave a couple top executives a “car allowance” of $1,300 a month when it sent offer letters to David Koehler, senior vice-president of sales, in November and to Alan McLaren, SVP of fixed operations, in early January. (Both letters were filed with yesterday’s 10-K.) At $15,600 a year, that leases some nice wheels. So it was doubly surprising to us to see that the same employment letters give the executives “the opportunity to park in the AutoNation headquarters garage” — which is described as “a covered and secured parking facility” — only if they shell out $10 a pay period. Assuming Auto Nation executives get paid roughly twice a month, why not just make the car allowance $1,320 and avoid some picayune transactions? It’s not like they’re saving shareholders much money. Then again, with target pay of more than $700,000 apiece, presumably the executives can handle it.

Not to point any fingers: Exceptions notwithstanding, corporate boards seem to go out of their way to remain polite and collegial. So we noted with amusement that the board at Host Hotels & Resorts (HST) disclosed in an 8-K last week that it was capping the perks that directors received. Company directors, it turns out, “receive complimentary rooms, food and beverage and other hotel services” at company properties (“in order to encourage our directors to visit and personally evaluate the properties”), plus reimbursement for taxes on the same. Now those goodies will be limited to $30,000 a year. Our interest piqued, we checked out last year’s proxy, and discovered that just one director racked up more than that in room charges in 2010 — Gordon H. Smith, CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, at $49,592 (the next highest was $28,456); the tax gross-up added another $39,682 for him, and between $16,000 and $21,000 for the others. We’ll see what the next proxy shows, but presumably it’s a little less awkward to change the policy than it would be to ask a fellow board member to tone it down.

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