Two of the items I touched upon in last week’s City Council Agenda were introduced by Mayor Jerry Amante. With some mystery, Amante agendized discussion of council benefits, stipends and gifts and the possibility of having citizens determine these matters through referendum. Although Tustin has been fortunate to have, what is considered to be, a relatively open city government, it has had issues over the past few years regarding stipends and benefits for city leaders. Councilmember Deborah Gavello, in particular, has had her problems with the Orange County Register revealing what some would call lavish expenditures. And, like Matt Cunningnham at Red County, I have a hard time getting into a tizzy over councilmember’s benefits (unless we are talking Bell). However, allowing the citizens of Tustin to have a direct hand in determining council compensation is a great idea.
I am not sure how far Boss Tweed Amante, who is termed out and will not be affected by any changes, wants to take this. It is certainly better than the old method whereby the outgoing council was responsible for setting the incoming council pay. And, it would certainly clear up any ambiguity Gavello or her attorney may believe there is in current law.
I firmly believe that most offices of government, up to Congress should be considered a citizen government. This is particularly true of local government. city councils and, indeed, even county board of supervisors should have full-time jobs and not be dependent on stipends and benefits from their part-time work as keepers of the keys. While professional legislators have overrun state and local government, usually to the detriment of the citizens they supposedly serve, cities and counties should never succumb to such a scheme.
It is hard to say what good old Jerry will come up with. Fresh from his triumph over those gullible Tustinites who would dare to oppose his tyranical form of governance, this may be an effort to paint himself as the altruistic politician he so often claims to be. If he will accept a few suggestions, here is my two cents:
- Stipends should reflect a reasonable amount to allow for time spent on city matters. Let’s not forget, however, the intention is not to create a job, but to draw volunteers to public service. At the same time, the citizens, in a rage over some perceived action or inaction by the council, should not be allowed to make wide-ranging changes in compensation. Perhaps a cap of plus/minus 10% should be the limit for any change in stipend during any term set by law.
- Benefits should be considered separately and not subject to the same cap as stipends. I mean, do you really expect or want a candidate to consider running for the position of city council based on whether they will be able to obtain health benefits? I am not sure whose idea it first was to propose any benefit other than a stipend for local elected officials but the idea stinks, plain and simple. Better the officials are given a “personal benefits account” (subject to certain rules) that could be used to further the official’s outreach to the community. After all, these are elected officials, not employees.
- This should be a recurring referendum that is automatically placed on the ballot during council election years. This eliminates the confusion caused by midstream changes. It also makes it easy for the budget committee to forecast council expenses. Choices should be “raise”, “lower” or “no change”.
Jerry also has asked staff to come up with a more strict policy for councilmembers regarding gifts and gratuities. He believes the starting (and ending) point should be the policy currently in place for city staff. Whether this is practical or not, remains to be seen. I am willing to look at what the staff come up with before commenting. However, all of this is a step in the right direction.
It is good to see that Amante is at least attempting to be thoughtful as he moves into his final year of office. Oh yes, we have no doubt he will continue as Hizzoner through the end of his term.