Each council member will now be reimbursed by $450 a year or $2,250 for the group to attend community events, the council unanimously approved at last week’s council meeting.
“We spend $440 a month going to these events,” stressed council member Elizabeth Pearson, adding that each member is “asked to go to certain events because of our different interests or different areas of expertise or what we bring to the table. It’s easily $600 a month, if not more.”
Resident Mary Dolphin called the allocation inappropriate. “Taxes are collected to pay for goods and services and not to pay for council members to go to social events no matter how worthy the cause,” she told the council.
Dolphin also said she believes that receiving complimentary passes to events hosted by local organizations constitutes gift-giving. “Elected officials aren’t supposed to take gifts because it influences the decisions they make,” she continued. “It’s pretty simple. It’s supporting an organization that has a mission and that’s not an appropriate use of taxpayer money.” Other residents told the council they expected their attendance at community events and that it should be paid for by the hosting organization.
The Laguna Beach Taxpayers’ Assn. also opposed the appropriation. “We’re quite upset,” said Martha Lydick, president. “They don’t have to go if they don’t want to go.” Lydick said even though the amount is relatively small per council member, it adds up as a group with the taxpayer tagged as the default to carry the brunt of the bill. “We’re not against paying taxes; we’re against waste,” she said.
The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces election campaign laws and conflicts of interest, has loosened its restrictions over the past year on gifts to government officials, requiring open meetings and notifying the public of pending investigations.
“What is the cost to attend a local event, a $1-worth of gas?” queried FPPC commissioner Ronald Rotunda, a Chapman University law professor, who opposes the relaxed restrictions. “It strikes me that it’s simply income dressed up as expenses.” Considering that local events usually include a cost for dinner, beverages or a performance, Rotunda said he was reluctant to give an opinion on an issue that may come before the commission.
Council member Kelly Boyd said the amount allotted for fees to attend local events does not cover what he personally spends, which is up to $600 some months and often includes his wife. “That comes out of our pocket, not the taxpayers’ pocket,” he said.
The amount will be reimbursed from the council’s $16,500 training, travel and dues fund. Of that amount, $5,500 is spent on the League of California Cities meetings in Orange County, south county mayors’ meetings and dinners for council members during closed sessions. Another $6,400 is earmarked for the council to attend the annual California League of Cities meeting, which will be held in San Diego next September. Two Washington, D.C., trips are scheduled each year with two council members given the option to attend, City Manager John Pietig said.
Pietig added that an average of $5,000 a year is left unspent and carried over to the next fiscal year.
“There is an expectation from the community that you be there,” said council member Toni Iseman. “Sometimes we have two or three events in a day. If we are the liaison to a group, the city should pay our way.”
The city of Newport Beach, according to its city clerk’s office, has no reimbursement policy. Irvine provides $6,500 for the mayor and $5,000 for council members annually for events, travel and business expenses.
Laguna Beach council members are paid $6,720 annually with up to another $2,600 each in benefits. Laguna Beach, along with 23 other OC cities, is a general law city where pay for city council members is governed by state law and employees’ salaries are determined by the council.
Irvine’s five council members are paid $10,560 a year with benefits, putting the average final salary at more than $30,000. Newport Beach’s mayor receives $20,491 as base annual pay with benefits putting the total at nearly $40,000; the six council members there each receive $14,443 a year with benefits putting the average salary at more than $30,000.
Irvine and Newport Beach are two of 10 chartered cities in the county, which means pay for elected officials and city employees is determined by the City Council.
“We have to attend hundreds of things a year we’re invited to,” said Boyd. “Of course, we have always paid for our spouses, which is part of our obligation. But there were certain events that were city-related that I felt the city could pay for.”
The council also voted against raising the limit on campaign contributions from supporting individuals or organizations. The council was considering raising it to $380 but voted 3-2 (council members Elizabeth Pearson and Kelly Boyd voted for the increase) to keep the amount at $360, where it has remained since 2008.
There is no overall total limit to how much money a candidate can accept in a given campaign and each candidate can contribute an unlimited amount to his or her own campaign.
Bob Whalen, an appointed planning commissioner who recently announced his bid for a city council seat, pointed out that more campaigners are following Obama’s breakout lead in using internet social media, which is less expensive than print or television and wider ranging.
Of the unchanged contribution amount, Whalen said it’s business as usual. “The status quo has been working fine in this community,” he said, “and it will probably continue to work.” Whalen said he spent $11,000 on his successful campaign for a seat on the Laguna Beach Unified School District board in 2002 and estimated a city council race at triple that amount.
Council members Verna Rollinger and Jane Egly will seek re-election in November.
City council candidate Steve Dicterow, a former council member, said any limit is moot. “I’m certain I’m going to be outspent two or three to one by my opponents,” he said. “My campaigns have never been based on how much money I spent.”