California Cities Shift To Charters, Raising Questions About Officials' Salaries
Many citizens are wondering how much their city officials are paid, after news broke that officials in the tiny city of Bell near Los Angeles paid themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars. KPBS research shows no such exorbitant salaries are paid in cities around San Diego.
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But recent political changes have made it more important to keep an eye on public employee compensation.
Many elected city council members will tell you they’re not in it for the money, and in many cases that is probably true.
Chuck Lowery is the most recently elected member of Oceanside’s City Council. He won his seat a couple of months ago. It’s supposed to be a part time job, but his kitchen table reveals he does a lot of work outside office hours.
“I believe that $24,000 a year for a job that’s called a 20-hours-a-week job is a great wage,” Lowery said, “But I’m not working 20 hours a week, I’m working 40 hours or 50 hours and I know the other council members are doing the same thing.”
In the same election in which Lowery won his seat, residents voted to make Oceanside a charter city. The city of Bell was also a charter city and that’s how their city council got away with awarding themselves enormous salaries. Charter cities no longer have to abide by state laws that tie elected officials’ salaries to the size of the population they represent.
Lowery says Oceanside residents decided to make the city a charter because they were told it meant the city wouldn’t have to pay prevailing wage on public works projects.
“Most of the people who voted in favor of the charter, voted to save money because that was how it was being advertised,” he said. "It was being advertised as a money-saving, cost-cutting regulation.”
Lowery said people didn’t realize it also gives the city council a lot more authority, including over their own salaries.
Oceanside is the most recent of eight cities among San Diego’s 18 cities to decide to adopt their own charter.
Jessica Levinson of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles says more and more cities around the state are adopting charters.
“They do have a lot more control,” she said. “Charter cities have a lot more independence from the state, and I think when elected officials get into municipal office they want to set more of their own laws. I think this is a trend toward more charter law cities.”
In California, 120 of the state’s 480 cities are now charter cities.
“I think this can be positive,” Levinson said. “However, on the other side is the Bell situation, where it’s a charter city no one’s watching, and the freedom they got from being a charter city was terribly detrimental for their residents.”
Oceanside City Councilman Jerry Kern advocated strongly to become a charter city. He says cities could increase their salaries significantly even when they were still so-called “general law” cities without a charter.
“What people don’t realize,” Kern said, “in a general law city, every year you can raise your salary 5 percent, so if you had someone bent on keeping salaries going higher and higher, you can raise it 20 percent over four years and you can keep it going on for ever.”
Douglas Johnson of the Rose Institute, a Center for the Analysis of State and Local Government, thinks the whole focus on public officials' salaries is missing the point.
“In the big picture, this is a minuscule portion of the government budget,” he said.
Johnson says that benefits have a much more significant, long-term impact. He admits benefit packages are really hard to analyze but, for example, he said a lot of cities provide health care for life.
Retiree health care is like the submerged portion of an iceberg floating next to many municipalities, threatening to sink their fiscal ship.
Back at Chuck Lowery’s kitchen table, the new city councilman says he’s only just finding out how much he makes as a city council member. He says the city is also only just beginning to find out the implications of becoming a charter city.
“Bell is a really good example that the people didn’t understand what was at stake,” he said. “I think all cities that are charter cities, and there are many of them, need to increase their citizen involvement.”
Like in many of California’s newly-minted charter cities, Oceanside’s charter has no guidelines about public employees' compensation.
For more information on charter cities, see here.