Santa Ana Council To Ask Voters For A 700 Percent Raise

Santa Ana City Council members are asking voters to approve a ballot measure during the Nov. 8 general election that would raise their salaries by 700 percent, to the maximum allowed by state law.

Council members, who voted 6-0 Tuesday  night to approve the ballot measure, with councilman Sal Tinajero absent, said the increase was long overdue. The council’s salary has not changed since 1954, according to a staff report.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento called the ballot measure “an extremely modest request” given the dedication and time that council members give to their job.

“It’s so disproportionately out of whack in terms of the time we devote to what the compensation is,” said Sarmiento.

Current government code caps salaries for council members in general law cities with a population greater than 250,000 at $1,000 a month. Those cities can increase their salary beyond that limit by passing an ordinance.

Santa Ana, which has its own charter, currently limits salaries at $125 per meeting for council members and $200 per meeting for the mayor. If this ballot measure is approved by voters in November, the city would adopt the salary restrictions of a general law city — increasing their monthly stipend to $1,000 a month — but require future salary increases be approved by voters.

That amounts to an 700 percent salary increase for council members and 400 percent increase for the mayor.

The measure would not change the other benefits received by the city council, which make up the bulk of their compensation costs. Those benefits include include a $500 monthly car allowance, $50 meeting stipend for members of the Housing Authority, and between $7,908.84 and $20,226.84 in other medical and dental benefits.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez argues that the city council should be full-time, pointing to cities with smaller populations where council members have their own staff and receive an annual salary.

She pointed to the city of Compton as an example, where in 2015 the part-time positions of mayor and council members paid salaries of $63,000 and $55,800, respectively.

“We should be a full-time city council, this city is large enough and it’s probably going to be needed as the city continues to grow,” Martinez said.

She pointed to her own job as the director of a group called Alliance for a Healthy OC as providing unusual flexibility for her to devote to council work and serve on regional commissions.

“I term out in 2018 and sit on the majority of regional boards – the majority which are unpaid,” said Martinez. “I’m fortunate to have a job that allows me to participate…but whoever comes in [to replace me] will not have the job that I have that has given me the flexibility to participate.”

Although the purpose of the ballot measure is to increase the council’s salary, the ballot language does not include any mention of a salary increase. Instead, it describes the measure’s purpose as “to ensure Council compensation is set and strictly limited by such Government Code and to further provide that no increase in Council compensation be permitted without a vote of the electorate.”

Martinez also criticized staff for not discussing city council benefits, which makes up most of their compensation, in their agenda report.

“What is also embedded in here, that’s not transparent, is the health benefits. Nowhere in the beginning of the memo does it mention that,” said Martinez.

Once the ballot measure is approved by the council, the City Clerk’s Office will set a timeline for members of the public to submit arguments or rebuttals for or against the salary increase.

Sarmiento said the current salary limits make public office inaccessible for the average person.

“We get a smaller and smaller pool of people each year,” Sarmiento said. “That’s my fear…it dwindles down to people who will have the money to do this.”

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that the council’s salary would increase by 800 percent and the mayor’s salary would increase by 500 percent. Their salaries will increase 700 and 400 percent, respectively.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.