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San Diego city leaders make less than those in the private sector. Should they get a raise? We take a look.

March 5, 2012 1:16 p.m.


Robert Ottilie, chairman, San Diego Salary Setting Commission

Donna Frye, former San Diego City Council member

Related Story: SD City Council Votes Down Recommended Salary Increase


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Monday, March 5th. Our top story on Midday Edition, after years of budget deficits and shrinking city services, it might be tough to find many San Diegans enthusiastic about giving city leaders a boost in salary. The statistics included in a new report by the city's salary setting commission may make us think again. It seems San Diego's elected city leaders maybe far less than comparable individuals in the sector. And the report recommends the mayor and City Council salaries should be more than doubled. My guests, Bob Ottilie is chairman of the San Diego setting commission.

OTTILIE: Thank you very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Donna Frye is on the line with us. Hi, Donna.

FRYE: How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Quite well, thank you for doing this.

FRYE: Of course.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Bob, how much does the San Diego mayor and City Council members earn?

OTTILIE: Currently we pay council members $75,000 a year, and the mayor makes $100,000 a year.

CAVANAUGH: And how much does your report say they should be make something.

OTTILIE: We recommend that we adjust the salaries. We don't treat this as a raise. $175,000 for the council members, and $235,000 for the mayor. Even with that adjustment, our council members would make less than the council members in Los Angeles currently make. And only slightly higher than we currently pay the San Diego County supervisors.

CAVANAUGH: Now, that's a big boost that you're recommending. Why is this warranted? Why does the salary setting commission find that this kind of a pay increase is warranted?

OTTILIE: Well, the key to the pay -- we see ourselves sort of as the human resources department of a company. The City of San Diego is in fact the largest business in the City of San Diego. And with the strong council, strong mayor form of government we now have, they make the decisions. The reason we're $2 billion in debt in the City of San Diego is because of what councils did in the 1990s. So we have to make sure that that have run businesses, been successful in the nonprofit and private sector. That's not to say voters won't hire son who's experienced or independently wealthy, but at the current time, that's all we get running for City Council. So we're trying to expand the pools so the voters have the widest possible choice. And we think if we do that, we can improve the overall experience on the council, and make better decisions.

CAVANAUGH: How did you compare salaries? Are you comparing to the county supervisors or to the private sector? How did you make these determinations?

OTTILIE: Well, about six years ago, what the commission used to do is look at what comparable sized cities used to play. And we figured out there's not a single person that can run for City Council in Portland that could also run for City Council in San Diego. What we're really competing with is the private and nonprofit starters. Legal secretaries make more than $75,000. My peers, and I do a lot of nonprofit working but those attorneys that work all Kay are making $700,000 a year. We are suggesting that we pay enough so that people request make that sacrifice so we can get back to the sort of citizen legislature that a lot of us would like, and people can come and do this without having to dip into their principle. In looking around we also saw that San Diego had gotten way out of whack with, say, the supervisors or LA, which is the nearest comparison city. So we're not even doing well by that measure.

CAVANAUGH: Since 2003, San Diego City Council members have not received a raise. So taking that into consideration, there's been a lot of changes since 2003, and the cost of living and so forth. Do you also take that into consideration as you figured out what these adjustments should be?

OTTILIE: It's fascinating. And I think this demonstrates as much as anything how dysfunctional this process has become. Since 2003, they haven't had any raids. They voted down every recommended raise. The cost of living has gone up 26%, plus they've lost their car allowance, which used to be $8,000 of W-2 income. Just to get even with where they were, the buying power they had in 2003, we'd have to raise it to $105,000.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Donna Frye, let me get you into the conversation. How politically difficult is it for City Council members to raise their own salaries?

FRYE: Well, it's very difficult, especially when you have, you know, a financial crisis. And one of the things that is interesting though is that I think it's a smaller minority of opposition to at least allowing the City Council to sort of stay with par with the cost of living of people would be opposed to that. So you have a very vocal minority that threatens. Plus, every two years, you have either four or five council members going to be running for reelection. And their opponents would like nothing better than to feature that in the campaign brochure, saying bob voted to give himself a $50,000 pay raise, and we kept your libraries closed an extra five hours.

CAVANAUGH: Now, do you agree with the findings of the salary commission?

FRYE: Well, as far as the dollar value, as far as the math, I understand that. The mathematical equations that Mr. Ottilie has done. I have no reason to doubt his findings. I think the real question is whether or not that is doable given the current political climate. And part of the problem, I believe, and where I really think the change needs to occur, is in the way that the council goes about setting their own salaries. In 1973, the voters of San Diego voted in a charter section that established this salary setting commission. And every two years on an even number year, the salary setting commission meets to make their recommendations. That has really posed a great problem to be able to actually deal with this issue in a reasonable, that you feel way as opposed to a purely heightened political way.

CAVANAUGH: And I know that, Bob, part of the report you're submitting today also includes some changes to the way these salary recommendations are handled. Let me ask you about this argument, if you increase the salary of city leaders that you actually increase the pool of candidates who would be willing to run for city office. Do you see that that pool is shrinking and that actually that boost in pay might be a good thing?

FRYE: Well, I'm not so sure if the pool is shrinking, but I'm not sure that it's expanding. And I think that -- maybe I'm putting words into Bob's mouth, but the fact of the matter is, if someone has a job as a business owner and is making, say, $200,000 a year, and they're asked to run for City Council and take $100,000 pay cut, they're probably not going to want to do it. So you do limit the pool of people who would to do it or even could afford to do it.

CAVANAUGH: Charlotte is on the line from Point Loma. And good afternoon, thanks for calling.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm an average citizen who totally supports giving them the pay raises that they're I guess looking into. I think if we want city to be a great city, we need to attract high-quality pay and people them to do what we want them to do. I also feel the same way about teacher salaries.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. Let's talk about the other recommendations that you're making besides the salary adjustment. You make it so the City Council members won't benefit from an increase that they vote on. Tell us about that.

OTTILIE: We came into our job in November. We met about six or seven times and probably put about 100 hours in individually on this. And there was a sentiment that maybe we shouldn't waste our time. For four cycles, they just voted it down, and two years ago, they essentially didn't even let us speak. And I tried to urge people to come up with ways to solve this problem, because it's so dysfunctional in time. So what we've come up with over a three-month process is two supplemental recommendations that we hope will break this logjam. And the first one is partnered after a constitutional amendment in the state of Washington that prohibits anybody in office when a raise is enacted from benefiting from that. So what we have here is sort of a reverse conflict of interest. These people are not -- you initially think they would vote themselves a raise. The real conflict is the political conflict. They don't to be seen as raising their own pay. So let's solve that by enacting an ordinance or charter amendment that would preclude anybody that's in office when a raise is enacted from benefiting, that would be mayor or council. Then nobody could accuse them of padding their own pocket. So our recommendation this afternoon, and I would appreciate council woman Frye's take on this, is defer the salary proposal today, don't vote on the salary proposal, and instead send a rules committee to see if we can do an ordinance first that prohibits this council from benefiting that anything that might pass. That'll take some of the political heat off. And the second supplemental proposal is for a longer term solution. Refer the matter back to the commission, and let us come up with some language for a charter amendment that would change how we set salaries. It's no longer voted upon, maybe we tie it to judgments like the City Council supervisors do. But that would also include a provision that says when it's enacted, anybody in office can't benefit from it. So people can't accuse the council members of circumventing a vote.

CAVANAUGH: Donna Frye? Your reaction to that?

FRYE: I think that makes very, very good sense, particularly the second part, going to a rules committee and trying to figure out a way to amend this charter section and change it. I think the first part, even though from a logical, thinking person's point of view, it makes very good sense, speaking from a political point as far as saying, well, we'll raise the salaries but not our own, you'll still see political mailers that will misrepresent that particular vote, and that I suspect is the fear of many of the council members as far as taking the first action Bob is proposing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, won't it be -- this is to both of you. If there is no determination made now on perhaps changing this process so it's not as you call it so dysfunctional. Won't it be even more difficult for city leaders to raise their salaries if the comprehensive pension reform measure passes in June? That as I understand it freezes pensionable pay for city workers. So might the political consequences be worse?

OTTILIE: I think they'll be. I think it's going to be eight years down the raise before the council would even consider a raise. And the problem is, nobody is going to want to do the commission's job again. What they're going to get are people who will say oh, you gave the city employees a 3% raise, that's what you should get. So now we've institutionalized this pay that is way out of whack with their responsibilities. So I think we need to do it now. I think this is the cycle where we can break through.

CAVANAUGH: Do you agree, Donna?

FRYE: Yes, I think that -- just being part of it pack then and observing as a member of the public now, this is one of the most difficult things to have an elected official talk about, which is their own pay. If they don't at a minimum have this item referred to rules to have this discussion and allow this discussion to continue, I would agree that it is likely that you will never see any changes made, and it is going to become much more difficult to attract really top talent that has the ability to maybe leave their job for four years and come serve as a member of the council.

CAVANAUGH: There are some people in San Diego who would say, you know, $100,000 a year for the mayor, $75,000 for the City Council, I don't care how much they make at Qualcomm. That sounds like a pretty good salary to me. And I don't know that the people actually deserve to make more than that. How would you answer them, Donna?

FRYE: Well, I would first of all see who all is saying that, and if that is actually the opinion of the majority of San Diegans, which I personally don't believe it is. Having represented many of them. And actually go out and talk to people about this and explain it to them. Unfortunately what happens as Bob as told you, he's given five, ten minutes at most, that's the end of the discussion. You get a few headline, council votes down pay raise, and then it goes away. And we don't talk about it again for another two years. And that's part of the problem. Once people are educated and understand what's happening, I think they would generally be supportive.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think the mayor's recent announcement about a projected budget surplus will help this process in any way, Donna?

FRYE: No, because I don't think there's a budget surplus.

CAVANAUGH: Okay! Another can of worms.

FRYE: It's interesting but there's no surplus right now, in my humble opinion.

OTTILIE: You know, I see this issue as really part of the overall package of reforms that have been taking place and will be taking place at the city. I've always been very involved in the community, and I've always felt we could do better in city government, in a lot of different ways. So I'm a supporter of the reform package. I see this as a central pillar of the reform, because one of the things we need to do is make it easier for citizen legislatures to come in and work with the city. We have so many talented people in the city but we've precluded them from being a part of the government.

FRYE: I was going to say and also to cut down on this idea that government is the full-time position forever and ever, and that you start off as a council member and then you go on to higher office for the next 30 years. I think what Bob is saying, and again, it makes such good sense is that this would allow people to come in for, say, four years, or even eight years, but then to go back to their original career. And right now, with those types of salaries, those people will not be applying. And they won't be running for office. And he is absolutely correct.

CAVANAUGH: When you go before the City Council this afternoon, what are you going to ask them to do, not necessarily raise their salaries right now, but instead do what?

OTTILIE: We're going to ask them to defer the vote on the salary, we're going to ask them to refer to the rules committee this proposal that we enact an ordinance that would preclude them from benefiting from any vote. Then it can come back for a vote. But the third component, the most important will be the request that they refer back to the commission to come up with specific charter language to put on the charter and give the citizens an opportunity to vote on an alternative method. Until we have a different method of resolving salaries, we're never going to get to where we need to be.

CAVANAUGH: We'll see what happens. Thank you both very much.

FRYE: Thank you.

OTTILIE: Thank you.

FRYE: And thank you, Bob, for the thankless work you're doing.

OTTILIE: Well, thank you, Donna. Good to talk to you again.

FRYE: You too.