Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s call for shared sacrifice was finally embraced last week by the Los Angeles City Council that, until now, has inhaled pay raises like Charles Barkley at a free buffet.
Suddenly the Los Angeles City Council appears headed for a voluntary pay cut, size and shape to be determined later this month.
And irate taxpayers say it’s about time the council take not just one of those symbolic 2, 5 or 10 percent cuts — but a real, painful cut of 25 to 50 percent to bring them in line with city council members in other cities, including New York and San Francisco.
“The City Council’s $180,000 salary is way out of proportion,” says Alice Callahan, an Episcopalian priest who devotes many hours a week to community service on Skid Row. “People are suffering in the streets, and the City Council needs to send a message that it is willing to share in the pain everyone is feeling. And there’s a lot of pain.”
Councilman Dennis Zine started the voluntary sacrifice trend in February, not long after he got several calls from L.A. Weekly as it investigated how, exactly, Los Angeles had ended up with the highest-paid city council in the nation, possibly in the world. Zine immediately took a 10 percent pay cut of approximately $18,000. None of the other council members joined him, although several had previously declined a $7,100 raise — a raise that Zine took — and many of them diverted that money to pay for office expenses.
That $7,100 raise, which arrived as the country sank into recession, was the latest in a series of automatic “hands-free” raises (see March 3 Weekly story, “How L.A. City Council Got Those Huge $178,798 Salaries”).
But now, as the recession has deepened into The Great Depression 2.0, Zine said enough is enough with the automatic raises, which have been granted so frequently that the City Council members now earn more than members of the United States Congress and federal judges.
“The mayor had started talking about large layoffs unless spending was cut, and I wanted to set an example,” Zine said last week. He added that he had subsequently spoken to several council members about following his example, but they cited children and other family or financial concerns. And Zine, a retired policeman with a full pension, which puts his own annual income well above $200,000 a year, said he understood their reticence.
“I’m not disappointed that they didn’t follow my lead,” Zine insisted last Tuesday. “I wasn’t trying to tell them what to do. They each make their own decision.”
But when the city government employee unions reported last week that the mayor was talking about 400 job cuts, the spirit of shared sacrifice on the City Council suddenly spread faster than an Octomom rumor.
At 2:30 last Monday afternoon Councilman Tom LaBonge repeatedly refused to answer two basic questions put to him by the Weekly: Should the entire council take a voluntary pay cut, and if so, what percent of his salary is he willing to give up?
“Everything is on the table, everything has to be looked at,” he said over and over. “That’s all I’ll say.”
At 4:30 p.m., after hearing further discussion by the mayor of possible layoffs, across-the-board pay cuts and other potential consequences of the mounting financial crisis at City Hall, LaBonge called back with a new mantra.
“I’m pro-city employee,” he said. “If our new budget is going to impact police, firefighters and everyone else that works for the city, then it should impact me too.”
Asked if that meant he was now supporting a voluntary pay cut for the council, he said: “They pay us real well, and I work real hard. But we’re all in this together, so if that’s what it takes, then yes, I am. . It should impact me too.”
But LaBonge declined to get into specific percentages until the mayor unveils his new budget, which is scheduled for April 20.
Last Tuesday afternoon, a similar facing-the-new-reality scenario played out with council members Janice Hahn and Jack Weiss, who is leaving his Westside City Council seat this year and is in a contentious race to become city attorney against a well-funded challenger, Carmen Trutanich, who is backed by District Attorney Steve Cooley.
After demanding to know last Monday what “the angle of the story” was going to be, Janice Hahn went silent when told “the angle” was exactly the same as the question: Should the Council take a pay cut in the spirit of shared sacrifice? Hahn finally e-mailed a “No comment” last Tuesday afternoon.
Asked if that meant she wouldn’t give a yes-or-no answer, Hahn, again declining to come to the phone, issued a second statement via e-mail: “Of course I’m willing to make a sacrifice, if that’s what’s needed.”
Weiss, who was busy campaigning for city attorney, issued a statement late last Tuesday afternoon that he had decided to take a voluntary pay cut — of 2.5 percent.
His press secretary, Lisa Hanson, explained that Weiss, who was one of those who declined the relatively recent $7,100 raise, was now following the mayor’s request last Monday that each “city worker” take one hour off their 40-hour work week. And after all, a City Council member is a city worker — even if the City Council does earn 400 percent of Los Angeles median household income.
“One-fortieth [one unpaid hour per week] calculated out to be 2.5 percent,” Hanson said.
But community activists say the council members should be considering much higher cuts. “A council member’s family can live well on $100,000,” Callahan said. “We don’t want our City Council members so worried about personal income that they take bribes or take night jobs, but $180,000 is too much money.”
And Dan Wright, a land-use attorney and community activist from the Mt. Washington area, said it is important for the City Council to share in the deep financial pain that is spreading throughout L.A.
“Leadership begins at the top, so it would be a symbolically important gesture,” Wright said. “But it is not going to solve the budget crisis.”
Council President Eric Garcetti signaled that the council was bowing to the new fiscal realities last Wednesday morning, when he didn’t even wait for the Weekly to finish asking whether the council should take a pay cut. “Whatever we’re asking of our city employees, we have to mirror on the council,” Garcetti said. “If that means furloughs, if that means salary cuts, or if that means changing the way our pensions are calculated, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Garcetti, however, said he preferred to wait for the mayor’s new budget before committing to a specific percentage.
“We know it’s a tough time, and we know we have to do more with less,” he said. “But we haven’t finalized negotiations with the unions so I think it would be unfair to ask the council to take a blank cut at this time.”
The bottom line for the council, he said, is simple: “Our salary cuts have to be at least as high as what we’re asking of our employees.”
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Doug McIntyre, a talk-radio host at KABC, who frequently features experts on the problems besetting City Hall, said that while the council is clearly overpaid, “If they take a 25 percent cut, a 50 percent cut or even 100 percent, it’s largely symbolic, which sometimes you need to do. . Let’s say they finally give 25 percent back. That’s still chump change compared to what they’re costing us every year by passing all this crazy spending.”
In fact, McIntyre said, he has a better suggestion. “I’ll give them a 100 percent raise if they just stop passing laws,” he said. “I would tell them, ‘Why don’t you guys go home for a year?’ It would do more to balance the budget than anything else they could possibly do.”
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.