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L.A. City Council Clings to Stunning Perks and Pay 

They can't bear to give up those record-high $178,898 salaries

Wednesday, May 20 2009
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Is a 10 percent pay cut to the $178,789 salaries of the highest-paid city council in America really such a big deal?

As the budget drama unfolded in City Hall over the past several days, it became clear that the 15 Los Angeles City Council members, who earn 400 percent of local median income — more than members of Congress earn, more than federal judges are paid — are trying hard to avoid taking any personal hits to their growing wealth and freebies.

Instead, most of the 15 are touting a “10 percent cut” merely by tapping their extremely fat office budgets, which have exploded in size to an average of $1.2 million — per council member.

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There’s nothing like this City Council in America’s other big cities. Not Chicago, not New York, not San Francisco. Los Angeles City Council is steeped in huge paychecks, gigantic staffs, eight free cars per council member, $100,000 personal slush funds with virtually no strings — even a special clause that lets them get out of their parking tickets.

So when Eric Garcetti and Bernard Parks started talking about accepting a shared sacrifice following Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s declaration of a fiscal emergency, the public started demanding that a carving knife indeed be taken to the pork — Exhibit A being the City Council itself.

The roughly $1.8 million in cuts offered up by the council from its office supplies and staffs won’t make a dent in the $530 million budget gap. The council and mayor have until July 1 to reach a deal. The council on May 18 voted to duck several tougher choices by approving some classic fiscal trickery — but it also agreed to back employee furloughs and layoffs, a vote Villaraigosa had hoped for so that he can get tough with the powerful city-government unions if he has to.

Influential City Council President Garcetti wasn’t in town for much of the struggle — he was near San Diego attending to his Naval Reserve duties, and he issued a statement through his media shop: “Personally, I’ve committed to taking a cut that is at least what we are asking of city employees.” Then a few days later he startled the media and City Hall insiders by taking a rare stance against Villaraigosa’s constant demand for 10,000 cops. Garcetti slammed the mayor’s campaign ally, the increasingly politicized Police Chief William J. Bratton, who had threatened to reduce the number of police in the Westside district represented by Councilman Bill Rosendahl —if Rosendahl committed the sin of backing a freeze on police hiring. (Rosendahl held firm.)

Whatever budget Villaraigosa signs, it appears certain that the huge staffs, remarkable perks and record-high salaries enjoyed by the 15 council members will not be seriously reduced without a long struggle.

Meanwhile, in great contrast to L.A., San Francisco has 11 elected city/county representatives who in that very pricey city earn $98,660 per year, compared with L.A City Council’s $179,789. And unlike the vast personal staffs Angelenos are paying to provide to L.A. council members even in this fiscal disaster, San Francisco’s representatives employ just two paid aides, at $77,922 to L.A.’s $94,718 a year each. Each supervisor gets an extremely modest expense account — $5,000 per year.

“That $5,000 is for lawful government expenses of public funds like letterheads, envelopes and cell phones,” said Madeleine Licavoli, deputy director of the clerk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

What a contrast to L.A. Here, politicians like Janice Hahn, Richard Alarcon, Herb Wesson and Ed Reyes employ about 20 full-time aides — and that’s apiece. And the council has fought off efforts to take away its controversial and very unusual slush funds of $100,000 apiece, given to them every year with virtually no strings — and hidden from the public in plain sight under the disingenuous budget title “General City Purposes Fund.” (See accompanying story, “Council Tries to De-Fund Its Critics.”)

Licavoli in San Francisco chuckled when asked if that city’s 11 councilmembers-supervisors enjoy anything like the eight free cars financed by L.A. taxpayers for each council member here.

“No, of course not,” she said. Well, what automotive perks do they get in San Francisco? “They each get a reserved parking space.”

In San Diego and San Jose, also very expensive cities in which to live, city council members earn about half what Greig Smith, Wendy Greuel, Jack Weiss and the others make yet somehow get by.

In San Jose, Mark Gerhardt, administrative manager for the city clerk, said the 10 council members earn $90,000, and each has four or five personal staffers. They get a $600 monthly car allowance — not a small fleet of eight cars.

In San Diego, the eight council members earn even less than in San Jose or San Francisco — $75,836 — and each gets only five to eight personal staffers.

In the real world, where the debate rages over who and what should be cut, critics say the richly rewarded Los Angeles Council is tone deaf and making a potentially serious political mistake.

“From down here on Skid Row, taking 10 percent from their own budget tells me they’re out of touch with what’s happening in their own city,” says Alice Callahan, an Episcopalian priest who works with the homeless. “The wheels at the Los Angeles City Hall just turn and turn, but no one is ever held accountable for anything that goes wrong. And now there is no civic brain to save them.”

From a different political view, Doug McIntyre, the morning drive-time host on Talk Radio KABC, who often focuses on City Hall, says the council is so fiscally inept that L.A. may need to undergo a cathartic near-death experience, then chart a new path of fiscal responsibility — much as New York City did after its mid-’70s meltdown.

“Hey, I’m not rooting for L.A. to fail... [But] I think it has failed,” he says. “City Hall made deals they can’t pay, pensions they can’t pay. Who is going to tell the people that?”

Garcetti says the council has been proactive, giving up “more than $6 million from our office budgets in the last fiscal year and this fiscal year.” And Hollywood-area council member Tom LaBonge sounds almost wistful, talking of how he “started here as a city council aide making $18,000 in 1976. I’m making a little more now, but this is a fiscal emergency and we all have to share in the sacrifice.”

But as of now, only Valley council member Dennis Zine — who enjoys an LAPD pension on top of his council pay — voluntarily took a modest 10 percent pay cut of about $18,000. Zine hopes the other 14 members will set an example “in tough times,” but he may be hoping for a while.

Reach the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net

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