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San Diego Politicians Asked To Stop Voting On Their Own Salaries

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Photo by Claire Trageser

Bob Ottilie, chairman of the San Diego Salary Setting Commission, presents a package of ethics reforms, March 1, 2016.

A city commission is asking San Diego elected officials to both approve a package of ethics reforms and sign a pledge to follow the changes even if they never become law.

A city commission is asking San Diego elected officials to approve a package of ethics reforms and sign a pledge to follow the changes even if they never become law.

The city's Salary Setting Commission created the package as part of its recommendation for how to end the practice of the San Diego City Council voting on its own salary. Because of the heat they likely will take if they boost their own pay, the council members have not given themselves or the mayor a significant pay raise in more than 12 years.

Instead, the Salary Setting Commission proposes tying their salaries to pay raises for county Superior Court judges. Under the plan, the council would get 60 percent of a judge's pay in 2021, and that would increase incrementally to 100 percent by 2025. The mayor would be paid 25 percent more than a judge, and the city attorney would be paid 20 percent more.

Bob Ottilie, chairman of the Salary Setting Commission, said he also wants six other changes related to ethics:

• Ban council members, the mayor and the city attorney from receiving any gift worth more than $25.

• Eliminate car allowances for council members, the mayor and the city attorney.

• Ban outside employment for council members, the mayor and the city attorney.

• Require council members, the mayor and the city attorney to pay fair market value for seats to sporting events.

• Extend the ban on council members, the mayor and the city attorney from becoming lobbyists to two years after they leave office.

• Prohibit council members, the mayor and the city attorney and their employees from sending mailers using taxpayer funds for 75 days before an election if the person sending the mailers is a candidate.

A San Diego County grand jury report last year said that since 2003 base compensation for the mayor has been frozen at $100,464 and for council members at $75,386.

The way elected officials are paid is written into the city’s charter, which acts as the city’s constitution. This year, the council's Charter Review Committee is considering potential changes, including how elected officials are paid.

Those changes would go before voters in November.

Ottilie has long campaigned for ending the City Council's ability to vote on its own salary. He said the frozen pay limits the pool of candidates who can run.

"Our goal as citizens is to get the best and brightest to serve our community," he said. "What we've done in this community for over 50 years is to create an artificially low salary level to benefit existing council members."

But, he added, "no one on the salary commission believes the current council deserves a raise." He said that's why the pay increases won't begin until 2021.

Ottilie will present the package at the San Diego City Council's Charter Review Committee on Wednesday. He said he hopes the council will put the package before voters in November, but added that the council has rejected his proposals to change the way elected officials' salaries are set four times — in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014.

A citizens ballot initiative isn't possible, he said, because the salary commission doesn't have the funds to collect signatures.

Even if the City Council rejects the package, Ottilie said he hopes each council member will sign a pledge to follow the proposed changes.

A spokeswoman for Council President Sherri Lightner said she was not aware of the pledge.

She added, "the ethics reforms proposed by the Salary Setting Commission fall under the purview of the Ethics Commission, not the Salary Setting Commission. These proposed reforms will need to be reviewed by the Ethics Commission before any additional action is taken. After that, they would need to be reviewed by the Rules Committee of the Council, not the Charter Review Committee."

Other council spokespeople did not immediately respond to questions about whether council members would sign the pledge.

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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