“Shall an ordinance be adopted repealng Tustin City Code Sections 1303 and 1308(A)-(D), to eliminate city council member monthly salary and city council compensation consisting of participation in the city medical, dental insurance, life insurance programs, and retirement benefits?”
(You will not see a ballot argument against this measure in your voter guide. That is thanks to the Tustin City Clerk’s office who, when we called, mistakenly told us that the time for submission was past when the deadline was actually the following week. So, this will have to suffice as the argument against the ballot measure.-ed.)
That is the question you will be asked in November, thanks to lame duck city councilmember Jerry Amante. It is not, by the way, the measure he asked for back in October, 2011 when he first brought up the issue stating that more and more cities were taking steps to eliminate city council benefits. In fact, only one city in Orange County has eliminated all stipends and benefits for the city council and that is the Republican stronghold of Villa Park. What Amante originally asked for was to take a look at what, if any, benefits and stipend the council should receive. What we got was an all or nothing ballot measure that leaves nothing in between. Whether this was what he intended, he was more than accepting of it as he gleefully voted, along with his black ops guy, John, and his enforcer, Al, to place the measure written by the city attorney on the ballot.
Amante’s motives aside, the question of benefits for a city council is a good one, considering the attention paid to remuneration of government officials in the wake of the City of Bell scandal. Is it right for a person elected to what amounts to a part-time job to accept health, retirement and life insurance benefits? And, at what level should a councilman’s pay be set at? We might even be in favor of these questions had they been asked in two separate measures, such as one for stipends and another for the other benefits. And, that is our issue with the entire measure and why we do not endorse it.
Although there are cities and counties (ours, for one) where oversight and management by government officials requires their full attention and thus command a commensurate salary and benefits, most cities do not. Tustin, with a population of 75,000, requires only a part-time city council made up of what stateman James Madison envisioned as a citizen legislature. That is, people were expected to serve for a finite period of time and then return to their homes and jobs as regular citizens, hopefully with the thanks of the people they served.
Tustin certainly has no lack of citizens willing to serve their community. And, in the beginnng, they did so without pay or any kind of benefits. It was only in the last 30 years or so that the idea of remuneration for city councils of this size should be considered. And, in Tustin, there is good reason to continue compensation.
A few years ago, the city council decided to eliminate most expenses for city council members unless they were specifically voted upon in open session. This virtually eliminated any reimbursements for casual expenses incurred by councilmembers in the normal course of conducting city business. The cost of attending local functions and events, as well as unpaid committees they served on would be borne by the individual councilmember and not by the taxpayer. The stipend served to alleviate any financial strain placed on the individual by giving them a set amount of money to work with. This simplified issues with the city and eliminated graft and corruption that often went with expense reimbursements (we are not talking specifically about our town, by the way).
However, this poorly crafted measure will serve only to limit the number of residents in the community who can effectively serve as councilmember. Before running, an individual will have to think twice about the financial strain acting on behalf of the city may place on their wallet. This could effectively limit the makeup of candidates to those who are financially well off, where a stipend or reimbursement would be of little consequence.
It should also be noted that councilmembers have the ability to forgo health benefits, as Beckie Gomez and Al Murray have done, as well as opting out of pension plans. The same can be said for stipends which any councilmember may pass on. We’ll note that Councilman Jerry Amante takes the maximum benefit available as well as the city council stipend. He would have made a better argument if he had at least refused benefits and stipend when he proposed the measure.
As we’ve said, the question raised in this measure would have been better as two questions. The first, to eliminate ancillary benefits such as health & life insurance and pensions, is a no brainer. Part time officials should have real jobs that pay these benefits. The idea of receiving a pension for 8 years of part-time service is ludicrous and, in reality, serves no value to the official.
The second question, should councilmembers receive a stipend and, if so, at what rate, certainly deserves scrutiny. But, there are many ways to offer and control a reasonable stipend that does not give one the sense of a part-time job while at the same time compensates the official for out-of-pocket expenses commensurate with the time and effort involved. Doing so would protect the taxpayer from corrupt officials out to make a buck while allowing for candidates of modest means to serve their community.
So, we recommend a no vote on Measure HH and send it back to the new city council for review as a more appropriate and well thought out measure the voters can intelligently vote on next election.