A common refrain in City Hall used to justify eye-popping Los Angeles City Council salaries of $178,789 is that the number of residents living inside the boundaries of a council district is so big, the 15 council members earn their rich pay.

In fact, that’s pure City Hall spin. Council salaries do not derive from the size of the council districts, nor do most L.A. voters realize that, back in 1990, they agreed to what has become a never-ending series of automatic pay hikes for the council.

In 1925, when Los Angeles was a small city, a battle erupted over the best size for a city council, formally setting it at 15. Later, as L.A.’s population ballooned, mega-cities Chicago and New York expanded their councils to 51 and 50, respectively. But entrenched Los Angeles City Council members clung to the outsized power they enjoyed — particularly as the lordlike chief overseers of land development, a job these 15 retain today.

In her book New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, urban sociologist Janet L. Abu-Lughod writes, “what may have made sense in 1878, or even (though less so) 1925 seems particularly unsuited to the present.” Los Angeles’ 4 million residents live in freakishly huge districts of 266,000 people that the media derisively dubs “fiefdoms.” Seattle, by contrast, has about 60,000 people per council district; Houston has about 135,000.

Voters had a chance at fairer City Council representation in 1998, when they were asked to expand the council. But spooked by the spectacle of a still-inept, but now much bigger City Council, voters said a resounding no to both a 21-member and a 25-member body.

The council’s salaries arose via a completely different route, in a manner heavy with plots and political naiveté. In 1990, when City Council members earned $61,522, voters approved Measure H, a 25-page thicket of reforms to create the City Ethics Commission, whistleblower rules and fundraising reforms — in response to then-Mayor Tom Bradley’s sleazy dealings with Far East National Bank, from whom Bradley accepted $18,000 in pay, even as he directed a deposit of $2 million in city funds be made to the bank.

Critics demanded reform. But the anti-reform City Council refused to place Measure H on the ballot until a frustrated Councilman Michael Woo and lawyer Geoffrey Cowan proposed a carrot — giving the City Council a steep $25,000 pay increase to match the pay of municipal judges. Council member Ernani Bernardi bitterly opposed the pay hike, but even the quick-minded Bernardi failed to warn the public that this was no simple raise. Fine print within the 40-word clause granting a pay hike ensured that whenever municipal judges got a raise, or if the muni courts ever merged with another system whose judges got a raise, the council would get an automatic, “hands-free” raise.

Voters approved the 25-page ethics package, Measure H, and the $25,000 raise, but virtually no media coverage in 1990 explained the impact of the fine print. Later, the muni courts merged with Superior Courts, whose judges get raises when California state employees do, and whose judges also get special judicial raises — like a sizable 8.5 percent boost in 2007.

Critics call the outcome bizarre: Unlike Los Angeles, “unreformed” city councils like San Jose, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Portland, Boston and Seattle, which set their own pay or form a commission to do so, all keep their raises modest. Woo concedes today: “Do council members who set their own salaries keep them much lower than L.A.? Yes, because they are afraid of the voters.”

The consequences of this long-ago carrot dangled by Cowan, now a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, and Woo, now on the Los Angeles Planning Commission, are that, as the nation slipped toward recession in 2007, the City Council received the latest of four hands-free raises — in just two and a half years — spiking their salaries to $178,789. The salary for Antonio Villaraigosa was boosted to $232,426 (to reduce criticism, he takes about $9,000 less than that), higher than Richard Daley’s of Chicago or Michael Bloomberg’s of New York (Bloomberg is rich and takes only $1).

Some council members, realizing how bad it had begun to look, diverted the latest $7,100 raises into their office budgets or vowed to give it to charity; some who kept it disingenuously cited the “will” of the voters. TheLos Angeles Times wrote in 2007 of the escalating pay: “Each has received a raise of at least $35,000” during a two-and-a-half-year period, “a sum that is more than half the median household income for a family of four in Los Angeles.”

The result of two unrelated actions — the clinging by politicians to gigantic council districts, and a naive “reform” that feeds ever-spiraling raises — are both gifts that keep on giving to the City Council. Their unusually large districts create what scholars like Abu-Lughod call an “entrance fee” — meaning that it costs far too much money for a regular citizen to run a districtwide campaign to oust a sitting Los Angeles City Council member. Instead, their races are usually little more than coronations. After 12 years, America’s highest paid council members are ousted — by term limits.

— With additional reporting by Jill Stewart 

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