ESCONDIDO — At its Dec. 18 meeting, City Council voted 4-1 against giving itself a pay raise for the next two-year cycle, pending more community outreach and dialogue on the issue.
The City Council Rules and Policies call for a consideration of raises in December of odd-numbered non-election years, an arrangement many on the council agreed puts them in an “awkward” political situation. Put another way, they currently serve as judge, jury and executioner of their financial futures. They decided, instead, to take the issue to the public and hash out the issues of pay increases and whether the people of Escondido want full-time or part-time council members.
California Government Code Section 36516(a)(4) dictates that for state city council members, “any salary increases must be adopted by ordinance, and cannot exceed five percent for each calendar year calculated from the operative date of the last increase,” according to a memorandum written by City Attorney Michael McGuinnes ahead of the meeting. Automatic locked in pay increases are also not legally authorized for city council members in California.
Much of the council’s agenda on the topic centered around the issue of the difference in pay between the mayor and other members. Currently, Mayor Paul McNamara makes just over $70,000 per year for the job, while other council members earn just over $25,000 per year.
Councilwoman Olga Diaz, who says she will step down from the seat whether or not she wins her race for San Diego County Board of Supervisors in 2020, said she has had issues with the pay discrepancy since joining the council back in 2008.
“What I was trying to get at with the full-time/part-time thing was merely the fact that the council’s pay is out of sync with the mayor’s pay and that there are times when council people do have to be heavily invested,” said Diaz. “I personally have always had another job or two and a different source of income and I’ve never been able to depend on this particularly, but there have been many times in the past where I felt I was working equally as hard as another mayor and that was not reflected in the compensation.”
In San Diego County, only San Diego and Chula Vista city council members receive full-time level compensation.
McNamara responded by stating that the job keeps him busy on a “full-time and then some” basis, including often working on Saturdays.
“I don’t feel guilty about taking the money. I’m busy and it’s actually less than I was making before, so I don’t have any problems with that,” he said. “If in fact, the rationale was that the mayor would be full time and the council members were part time, I clearly consider myself full time in terms of the amount of time that I’m here, and the people that I talk to, and the people who want to talk to me.”
But he also said he’s “not so sure” that council members need to be full-time compensated employees, based on the amount of work he has seen them doing in his first year on the job.
Former City Councilman Ed Gallo, who was unseated in the 2018 election by Consuelo Martinez, spoke out against the notion of regular pay raises for council members during the public comments portion of the agenda item. In making his case, he pointed to the city of Oceanside, which has a larger population but offers its council members just a bit more money to do the job and the mayor less than half the amount. He said this was “totally out of whack for this town.”
“I’m opposed to you guys even considering taking this raise,” said Gallo. “I sat up there for 16 years, which means we had eight opportunities to increase our salary. I think we did it four, could be five times, which means we didn’t feel it was right to take the increase.”
But his former conservative colleague on the council, John Masson, said that he thought Escondido should not necessarily compare itself to other cities in making decisions for itself.
“I know we’re in the red, Ed, but we’re going to solve that somehow. It has to be solved and we’re not the only city that has to solve it,” said Masson. “And comparing to other cities, I’m kind of getting tired of that. We’re Escondido. We’re our own city. We plow our own way and we do our own things and we make our own decisions … We have our own ability to make our own decisions and be who we want to be and do what we want to do as a city.”
Masson found an unlikely political ally on the issue from the public in Laura Hunter, a longtime environmental activist in North County and throughout San Diego County, who pointed out “how much hard work it is” to serve on the City Council.
“If you’re going to be an elected representative that does the work — there’s a lot of it — and is inclusive and works to have representative and meets with a lot of people and makes yourself available for all the things that elected officials should do, then I think you should be paid for that time,” said Hunter. “And I get concerned that if we don’t pay officials — and I frankly think you should also have a staff assistant of your own, but whatever, that’s a different issue — if you don’t do that then elected offices become kind of the purview of the retired people, or the wealthy people or people who aren’t busy with their lies and the many, many things to do.”
A discussion and vote on the issue of lowering campaign contribution limits for those running for elected office in Escondido was tabled until early-February, with council members asking for more time to bring questions to McGuinness. City Council will next meet on Jan. 15.