What one former councilmember called Oceanside’s dirty little secret has been discussed in open session and appears to be on the chopping block.
Oceanside is by far the largest city in North County. But its city councilmembers only get paid $30,528 annually. Their special perk is that they get to hire their own full time aide who reports only to them. These aides — who get between $45,516 and $58,092 — don’t need to show up to work at city hall. And when they do, they can work on matters unrelated to the city, according to a former councilmember and a former aide.
“His office was Republican party central headquarters,” says former city councilwoman Shari Mackin about former council aide Ben Sullivan who she says often used his city office to work on political matters.
Sullivan, who worked for councilmember Jerry Kern, left the employ of the city of Oceanside two years ago. He has long been a member of the San Diego Republican Party Central Committee.
“He was not in the office very much,” says Mackin. “He would go to a lot of luncheons.”
Oceanside councilmembers can hire whomever they want as aides including family members. The city of Oceanside's anti-nepotism rules do not apply to council aides. A high school education is not required.
Peter Weiss, who was appointed mayor in January upon the health-related retirement of Jim Wood, opted not to hire his own aide and let the position of mayor's aide go unfilled. At an April 18 city council meeting, Weiss proposed that the staff readjust the new budget so that the five aide positions would be eliminated and replaced by one staffer who would report to the city manager office and work for all five councilmembers.
Councilmen Kern and Jack Feller agreed with Weiss. As a result of the 3-2 decision, the council will vote June 6 to end the one aide/one councilmember practice.
Weiss noted that Oceanside is the only North County city that allows its council members to hire individual aides. The cities of Escondido, Carlsbad and Vista each have one staffer that answers phones and works for the entire council.
If the budget change passes next month, the city council aides will be phased out, coinciding with the newly created council district elections: because council districts 1 and 2 are up for election in November, the newly elected councilmembers to those districts will enter office in December without individual aides. The position for the aides for districts 3 and 4 will be phased out after the 2020 elections.
Because of the unusual configuration of this year’s council race, three council aides could lose their jobs. Councilmembers Esther Sanchez and Chuck Lowery have said they are both running for district 1. Sanchez faces losing her aide Angela Sanchez (her niece) and Lowery aide Don Green appears headed out the door.
Jerry Kern is running for county supervisor and has said he will not run in the newly created district 2 (where he lives) no matter what happens in the supervisor race. His aide Cliff Ireland would be displaced.
Former councilmember Mackin says now is a good time to end the luxury of city council aides. “Since each member will now be responsible for just one district, they will have a smaller constituency and won’t need an aide as much as when they covered the entire city.”
Mackin says she and many of her South Oceanside neighbors are not happy with how councilmember Lowery would use his aide to avoid communicating with his constituents.
“Regarding the Morse Street [improvement] project Chuck would send his aide instead of talking to us himself. Chuck is always unavailable. When you call him at his office and ask to speak to him, Don Green tells us that we don’t get to talk to Chuck himself. That everything goes through him.”
One former Oceanside City Council aide who did not want to be identified says it is no surprise that councilmembers use their aides as re-election or political operatives. “In any campaign, your staff is one of your biggest expenses. I think having aides like this is a huge advantage for incumbents to keep their jobs.”
Mackin agrees that aides who spend their time on political work is not healthy. “[Deceased city councilwoman] Melba Bishop said being on the city council is about fixing roads and keeping your neighborhood safe. It shouldn’t be about running for Congress or the next stepping stone.”