On April 21, local attorney Bob Ottilie went to the city council meeting with a Personnel Department list of salaries made by city employees last year. That day the council would reverse a decision it had made the previous week to increase its members’ total pay package by $8499 to $93,485, starting in January 2009.
According to the salary list, over 3200 city employees received pay (some amounts included overtime) in 2007 that was higher than the city council base salary of $75,386. Pointing to the list, Ottilie observed that 1431 police officers, more than 80 percent of the force, received more than city council members’ base pay. Councilmembers last year were also paid less than 746 firefighters, 31 lifeguards, and 16 librarians.
Councilmembers receive an additional car allowance of $9600, bringing their total pay package to $84,986, their taxable income. Even when the comparison is based on the higher figure, says Ottilie, councilmembers earn less than 1600 city employees.
Ottilie is a member of the Salary Setting Commission. According to the city charter, the commission has the responsibility every even-numbered year of recommending by February 15 the salaries of the mayor and city council members. This year, after three months of studying pay in other cities and the business world, as well as the city council’s duties, the Salary Setting Commission proposed that the council add $50,000 to its members’ salaries over two years. Commission members reasoned in part that the increase is needed to attract highly qualified people from the private sector.
“This is not a pay raise,” Ottilie said when he addressed the council. “When I worked on the Civil Service Commission, we used to call it a salary adjustment. What you do is, over time, when circumstances change and you determine that the position isn’t being paid what it should be, you don’t look at inflation or cost of living or other factors, you readjust the salary to the fact that now you’re working 80 hours a week and you’re making every significant decision in the city.” In Ottilie’s opinion, “We now have a strong city council form of government.”
“The 10 percent increase you decided on last week,” Ottilie continued, “was over four years, because you didn’t get a raise two years ago. That’s 2.5 percent per year at a time when the mayor is calling for an increase in the budget of 13 percent.”
Yet on April 15, the San Diego Union-Tribune ran a front-page story calling the increase a 24 percent raise. Writer Matthew Hall suggested that with the council’s pay increase, two park supervisor positions could have been funded. The following day, a Union-Tribune editorial railed against the council’s 24 percent increase.
Returning to Bob Ottilie’s council address, however, the attorney noted that over 3000 of the employees who make more than city council members work under the mayor. “There is at a minimum,” he said, “an appearance here that what the mayor wants is to keep his part of the city strong and weaken, year by year, your position relative to [his] office. [The city council salary] issue is going to be demagogued, it’s easily demagogued, and it’s now been demagogued by the Union-Tribune in their news pages as well as their editorial pages. It’s been misrepresented in the mayor’s office as well.”
The Union-Tribune’s 24 percent story, Ottilie tells me later, “campaigned” against the city council pay increase. And that, he says, is allied with the paper’s ongoing editorial attack on the body. “The fact that the city charter requires the salary issue to be brought to the city council is never mentioned in the article,” says Ottilie. “Second, the initial salary recommendation came from a commission that looked at the subject over three months. We had more meetings and looked at more issues and more numbers than any commission in recent history. Hall makes a vague reference in his story to a voluntary commission but never even mentions the Salary Setting Commission’s name or role in the process.
“Our commission told the council, ‘Keep your car allowance and add on $50,000 over two years.’ Then, when the council met, [Councilman] Ben Hueso said, ‘Let’s do this instead. Let’s get rid of the car allowance but move it over to salary.’ They’re not making a dime more when they do that, right? Then they raised [the total package] 10 percent. That’s how it was phrased in the meeting — 10 percent. The motion passes five to three. Then Hall runs a story that says the council gave itself a 24 percent pay raise that was only slightly less than was recommended by a volunteer commission. But the amount was only [about $8500].
“The story did not mention either that the commission said the council should not determine its own salaries, a recommendation never made by any previous commission. The council sent that recommendation back to the rules committee. There’s no reference to that in the story,” says Ottilie.
“But the thing that jumped out at me was that Hall said, by comparison, the raise would require the elimination of two park supervisors. How many times has the Union-Tribune reported that a fire department battalion chief knocking down over $200,000 causes the elimination of a park supervisor? And it’s not true of the council pay increase anyway. The increase will come out of established council money and won’t affect the rest of the city’s budget.
“But the story,” Ottilie went on, “is a campaign piece against the increase. It could just as easily have said in the third paragraph, ‘By comparison, the raise would still leave 1600 people in the city, including 2 librarians and 17 lifeguards, making more than the council.’ Or it could have said, ‘By comparison, similar management positions in the private sector pay between $800,000 and $1.3 million.’ And then he says, ‘Nobody else is getting raises.’ Bullshit, nobody’s getting raises. July 1, they’re going to pay firefighters 5 percent more. And they just had a raise three years ago. The police are going to get 6 percent.”
During the April 21 council meeting, Fifth District councilman Tony Young picked up where Ottilie left off. Young has been the only councilmember to say forthrightly that he needs the salary increase. In commenting on the council’s intention to reverse the increase of the week before, Young took aim at leadership. “Folks will look at this as a weak council,” said Young. “If the media becomes a little disappointed or writes a nasty article about the council, then the council and its leadership seem to acquiesce and bend that way. If the mayor decides that the increase is a bad idea and wants something that’s in his interest, then it seems that the leadership of this council will bend to that will.
“We should not be guided by what the mayor thinks is a bad idea. That’s not how we should make our decision. The perception then is that the mayor says we can’t do it, so we can’t do it. That’s absolutely contradictory to what we should be doing. We should be doing what we think is right.
“I think the [council’s reversal] is not what’s best for the city; it’s what’s best for individuals. We have people running for city attorney on this council. I won’t be any part of it, and I won’t reject the Salary Setting Commission’s recommendation today,” said Young.
“It’s pretty clear the mayor understands the concept of paying individuals well for the job that they do. If you look at the leadership in that mayor’s office right now, most of those people make much more than people here. It could be in the best interests of an incumbent mayor for our salaries to be low.”
I take a look at the Personnel Department’s employee salary list. Councilman Young seems to have a point. In the mayor’s office, the city’s chief operating officer earns $207,309. His assistant earns $152,315. Two deputy chief operating officers make $150,010. The chief financial officer, $150,010.