He’s angry, yes, and willing to expound at length on the many screwups and shortcomings of L.A.’s elected elite, but Douglas Epperhart isn’t out to fire anybody. He just wants to make some serious pay cuts.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s tops-in-the-nation (roughly) $232,000 annual mayoral salary? Slash it in half, Epperhart says.
The whopping $178,789 in wages drawn by each of L.A.’s 15 City Council members, making them far and away the most exorbitantly paid local elected officials in America? Chop those in half too, Epperhart says.
Ditto for City Attorney Carmen Trutanich (about $213,000) and Controller Wendy Greuel (some $195,000), who benefit from the same whacked-out “reformed” salary formula. Let them get by on something closer to a hundred grand, he declares.
“Anybody who turns on [televised City Council meetings] and watches ... will say, ‘These are the people who are running our government? And that’s what we pay them?’ ” asks an incredulous Epperhart, a likely future City Council 15th District candidate in San Pedro, who enjoys showing off a typed-up list of egregious examples of City Hall bungling.
His bullet points range from the L.A. City Council allowing thousands of illegal billboards to its approval of massive overdevelopment on an already jam-packed landscape. A particularly woeful example: shelling out almost $50 million for a custom enclosure for Billy the Elephant at the L.A. Zoo. (“The answer is, sell the elephant!” says the boyish-looking 53-year-old activist. “Get rid of it!”)
What separates Epperhart, a genial printer and publisher, from multitudes of fed-up Angelenos is that he is taking action. Spurred largely, he says, by an L.A. Weekly exposé of council salaries and perks published on February 26 (“Los Angeles on $300,000 a Year”), Epperhart and others in the city’s 88 Neighborhood Council groups are embarking on what some might call a quixotic attempt to force a pay cut on L.A.’s elected officials. They hope to put the issue to voters on the November 2010 ballot.
The city’s constitution currently links the salaries of elected leaders to raises the Legislature grants to Superior Court judges. Without even having to do a good job, a council member automatically receives a raise whenever judges do; Villaraigosa receives the judges’ pay — plus 30 percent.
As the Weekly reported, the unexpected result of this 1990s-era “reform” is that “L.A. City Council salaries are not just overinflated in an era of belt-tightening. They are ... higher than those of federal judges. They amount to a staggering 400 percent of L.A.’s median household income of $46,000 — and no other city council, in cities poor or rich, comes even close to that troubling disparity between public servant and the public.”
Epperhart’s plan is to insert the word “half” into the formula — four potent letters that would slash the City Council’s and three other elected officials’ pay by 50 percent and save L.A. taxpayers close to $2 million a year. “The longer they’re in office, the farther they get from you,” he says.
That’s because of the wealth vividly described in the Weekly’s story, he says — including eight free cars apiece (yes, eight cars), a $100,000 slush fund each, and 17 to 25 personal staffers apiece, which, added together, rivals the size of the White House office staff.
Numerous phone calls from the Weekly yielded very few City Council members willing to comment on the plan, as if they hoped the awful thing would wither and die on its own. Nor did Villaraigosa’s office respond.
As Epperhart tells it, Councilwoman Janice Hahn chided him, “Oh, you’re going to cut my pay in half?” Epperhart says he promised to try, saying, “You’re not going to starve.”
Hahn’s office ducks the issue. “The councilwoman doesn’t really have a comment on this,” as one press aide puts it.
City Hall is treating Epperhart’s idea as a joke. “We’ve got to get them to that ‘oh, shit’ moment,” he says, conceding it won’t be easy. To qualify for the 2010 ballot, Epperhart’s bugeoning organization — right now technically titled the “Los Angeles Citizens Compensation Committee for Yes on Unknown Measure” — must collect valid signatures from 240,000 registered voters, which is a costly, very difficult.
Epperhart figures to accomplish it entirely via the Internet and through Neighborhood Council watchdog groups. But the decision to forego pricey, professional signature-gatherers is almost always the kiss of death for a ballot measure.
But Epperhart is counting on this being an extraordinary cause at an extraordinary time.
He jabs a finger at a flier that shows how L.A. City Council salaries, at $178,789, now outstrip even those of U.S. senators ($174,000), and leave New York City Council members in the dust ($112,500). It might, in fact, be the highest-paid city council in the world.
The fact that both the L.A. city and California state budgets are reeling out of control, with legislators turning the budget fight into a national embarrassment, can only provide momentum, some veteran strategists believe.
“Oh, absolutely,” says Kathay Feng, the L.A.-based executive director of California Common Cause, devoted to accountability in government. “Just as there was a tremendous backlash against the AIG [corporate officials] getting huge bonuses while collecting bailout money, there’s also a sentiment that our state and local elected officials should not be getting exorbitant salaries.”
Pressure on the Legislature to slash its salaries is escalating. UC Santa Cruz constitutional-law teacher Ryan Coonerty, in an L.A. Times op-ed, made a case for cutting in half the $140,000 legislators receive annually in salaries and per diem allowances, while doubling the number of legislators to cut down the size of existing, giant legislative fiefdoms.
The same arguments could be applied to L.A., where residents sick of the City Council’s chronic, often inexplicable citywide failures on congestion, billboards, pot dispensaries, overdevelopment and graffiti might as well be howling in Mirkwood forest.
Professional signature-collectors typically demand $2.50 or more per signature — but sometimes far less if a petition is an easy sell with voters, as would likely be the case here.
“It will be novel” to gather 240,000 signatures for free, says San Pedro resident Bob Gelfand, a co-founder with Epperhart of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council.
But, Gelfand says, “The difference is, we’re not trying to fool people into signing a Trojan Horse” that is purposely misleading, like Measure R, aggressively pushed in 2006 by City Council President Eric Garcetti, Villaraigosa and the League of Women Voters as “ethics reform,” when in fact it gave City Council members the right to an extra four years in office. “We’re not going to lie to the public,” Gelfand says.
Epperhart says the Weekly’s February exposé about council salaries and perks was followed in May by yet another boneheaded move by the City Council that acted as the tipping point. The well-to-do council voted to decimate the $50,000 office budgets for each of the Neighborhood Councils — a network staffed almost entirely by volunteers. The volunteers fought and won back most of their office budgets.
That’s when these neighborhood groups realized the royaltylike City Council members were trying to undercut their activism. The Neighborhood Councils now spearhead the campaign to cut the City Council salaries.
L.A. Citizens Compensation Committee co-chairman Michael Cohen is getting favorable early reactions. “I go to the dog park, and people say, ‘Where’s the petition? I’ll sign now.’ I went to the Neighborhood Council — the Reseda council — and they said, ‘Make sure you bring the petitions by. We’ll sign.’ They want it tomorrow.”