Santa Ana City Council members Tuesday night moved toward hiking their own pay and relaxing the city’s strict campaign contribution limits, directing the city attorney to draft these proposed changes to the city charter for a citywide vote in November.

The proposed charter changes would also make the city’s police chief an at-will position and eliminate department heads’ right to revert back to their old position in the event things “don’t work out,” according to a staff report.

The actual pay hike for council members still remains unclear.

Councilman David Benavides – who sits on an ad-hoc committee studying the proposals along with council members Michele Martinez and Vincent Sarmiento – said the committee hasn’t finalized its recommendations yet.

An agenda staff report suggests that council compensation for Santa Ana – $1,500 annually for council members and $2,400 for the mayor — is low compared to other cities of its size.

For example, Anaheim, which is close to Santa Ana’s population size, pays council members $18,000 annually and the mayor $15,300, according to the report.

But those numbers don’t take into account other pay and benefits.

The state controller’s database on public employee compensation, which includes such extras, shows that in 2011 some Santa Ana council members made more than Anaheim council members, and vice versa.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido made $32,834 in pay and benefits that year, according to the database, making him the eight highest paid council member in Orange County.

Two residents spoke against raising the council compensation, saying the current paychecks should be enough for a part-time council.

Thomas Anthony Gordon, also a member of the Orange County Republican Central Committee, said that a bookmobile could be purchased to cater to the city’s children with the money spent on council raises.

“You guys knew what you were in for when you ran,” Gordon said. “You’re asking for increased compensation while not providing a book mobile.”

Tinajero pointed out that the compensation levels were set in 1958, and that raises were necessary to encourage quality council candidates.

“The reality is if you want good people to run, you gotta pay ‘em,” Tinajero said, adding that the job has taken “a lot of my time,” and “a lot of my health.”

Campaign contribution limits, meanwhile, would be altered to eliminate conflict of interest restrictions that some council members have said are confusing and lead to “gotcha” moments.

The general cap for contributions to council campaigns is $1,000 per donor.

But council members are also disqualified from participating in decisions affecting contributors who have donated $250 or more to their campaigns. That disqualification lasts for 12 months.

Also, council members are barred from soliciting or accepting contributions of $250 or more “from any person impacted by a final decision on a license, permit or other entitlement, for a period of three months following the decision,” the staff report states.

In the past, an Orange County Register expose named named Martinez and Councilman Sal Tinajero as having run afoul of the restrictions when they accepted campaign contributions and cast votes on the Station District project, a housing development that city leaders hope will revitalize part of the downtown.

Tinajero pointed out at the meeting that even Shirley Grindle, the county’s campaign finance watchdog, says the city’s campaign finance and voting restrictions are confusing and in need of reform.

The drafted charter changes need to come before council for one more approval before being placed on the November election ballot. Any changes to the charter, which is essentially the city’s constitution, can only be made through a citywide vote.

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