By Allison Jarrell, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach City Council approved a 5 percent annual raise for itself and city commissioners and raised the threshold vote needed to allow a full-blown appeal of a Design Review Board decision.
On a 3-2 vote with members Bob Whalen and Rob Zur Schmiede opposed, the council voted Tuesday, June 26, to adopt the maximum increase for elected officials allowed by state law. Locally, council members will receive $908 per month rather than the current $826 for their service. Pay for Planning Commissioners and Design Review Board members will rise to $392 from $357, and Arts Commissioners’ compensation will increase to $137 from $125.
This week, state legislators were also given payraises of 3%, bumping their annual salary to $110,459.
Whalen and Zur Schmiede favored an increase that matched the salary increases given to city employees over the last three years.
Compensation rates were last updated in January 2016. The pay hike, which will go into effect on July 1 for commissioners and Dec. 4 for Council members, will be funded by a $12,500 appropriation that was approved in the city’s budget on June 12.
Annually, Laguna’s Council members will now make $10,896 plus an additional $960 cell phone stipend and a $338 pension contribution, for a total of $12,194. Council members and commissioners do not receive health, vision or dental benefits from the city.
In comparison, the city of Newport Beach gives elected officials $15,913 annually with $22,850 in other benefits and a $597 pension contribution, for a total pay of $39,369 per year. The city of Dana Point awards Council members an $8,620 base salary, $3,300 in other pay and a $647 pension contribution for a total of $12,567.
Only one resident spoke in opposition. Michael Morris acknowledged the number of hours elected officials put into their service and said the increase can’t even begin to cover what the city’s officials are actually worth.
“I don’t think an increase of $30, $40, $50 a month really is a meaningful thing,” Morris said. “I would simply propose that in a gesture of public service, and given that the city’s voters are going to be asked to increase taxes on themselves in November, perhaps the best move for the Council, not speaking for the commissions or boards, is to just forgo an increase.”
Council member Toni Iseman said the pay raise was her idea and that it would benefit the volunteers on commissions “who do the heavy lifting.” Iseman said she probably spends her entire stipend each month just on meetings with members of the public.
“What you see here is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the hours that go into what happens here,” Iseman said. “I think that it’s a reasonable request and it is symbolic.”
The Council also voted to amend the Design Review Board (DRB) appeal process so that when projects come before the Council, they can be reviewed on a de novo basis, as if they had not been previously heard before.
Currently when the Council hears an appeal, they must find error or abuse of discretion in order to overturn a DRB decision. City staff said that’s been challenging for the Council, especially when there’s a split vote on the DRB.
Under the amended ordinance, if the DRB decision has four or more affirmative votes, the appeal will be heard by the existing non-de novo standard of review. If the DRB decision lacks four affirmative votes, then a de novo standard would be used by the Council to review the project.
In order to reverse a DRB decision, the Council will need at least a 3-2 vote either way.
Since the amendment is part of the Local Coastal Program, planning tools used by local governments to guide development, the item will move on to the Coastal Commission for final review. If passed, the Council will review the amended ordinance in a year to assess its effectiveness.