A years-long battle between Anaheim City Council members over the salary of Mayor Tom Tait’s policy aide flared again Tuesday night, with the mayor pushing through a proposal to make the position full time and include a significant compensation bump.

The issue first arose in 2012, when the previous city council majority led by Councilwoman Kris Murray cut the budget for Tait’s policy aide, Mishal Montgomery, by nearly half. At the time, they said it was done to equalize funding for staff between the mayor and his council colleagues.

But Tait saw the vote — which meant Montgomery would see her total compensation at the time drop from $87,418 to $44,290 the following year — as blatant political retaliation for his votes against subsidies for luxury hotels in the city’s resort district.

So when the November election flipped the council in Tait’s favor, among the first actions of the new council majority was to undo the 2012 funding cut, which, after accounting for benefit cost increases, brought the line item to $111,450.

But the final proposal, which was put forward by Councilwoman Denise Barnes and passed Tuesday on a 5-2 vote, does more than just restore the previous funding. It makes Montgomery’s position, senior policy advisor to the mayor, part of the city’s full-time salary schedule. This boosts her total potential compensation to $160,000, including salary, sick and vacation pay and pension.

That compensation range is also 23 percent higher than the market rate for comparable positions in other cities, according to Human Resources Director Jason Motsick.

Because the change in Montgomery’s hours occurred halfway through the fiscal year, her compensation would amount to $125,000 this fiscal year, although the actual figure will likely be lower because she does not use the city’s health care benefits.

“From what I see here is this isn’t the same thing that you asked” for at the last meeting, Councilman Steve Faessel said to Tait.

Tait responded by saying that for the past decade, Montgomery has not received a pay raise despite being indispensable to the mayor’s office. He also made these points: her hourly pay rate of $47 remains unchanged as it has for the past decade; she doesn’t make the maximum salary for her position; and will never hit the $160,000 ceiling because she refuses health benefits.

“As mayor of a city of 350,000, I need a full-time person at City Hall, when I am not here, who is capable of making decisions for me [and] to handle a complex issues of this office,” said Tait, who pointed to several other large California cities where mayors have multiple staff members.

That prompted objections from Murray, who noted that Anaheim is not a strong-mayor city, where the mayor is not a council member but the elected chief executive of the city. In cities with that governing model, mayors need far more staff because there is no city manager.

“I’m concerned that the market rate study that we haven’t seen indicates this is 23 percent higher than comparable public agencies,” Murray said. “The mayor indicated other cities, which are strong-mayor cities with significantly higher populations.”

However, Tait also cited other large cities where there is a city manager but the mayor has multiple staff; the mayor of San Jose has six full-time and nine part-time staff, while the mayor of Long Beach has eight full-time employees.

Another issue for Murray is that while Tait might not take advantage of the full range of pay for his aide, the new classification would open the door for any future mayor to do so.

“We’re establishing a rank and classification that has not previously existed,” Murray said. “As we do that we set a precedent and we need to consider long term  impacts.”

Councilman Jose Moreno, who, along with Barnes and Councilman James Vanderbilt make up Tait’s new majority, said he didn’t think the increase was too much to ask.

“Yeah, maybe it’s 23 percent above the market [rate] but it’s one person doing the job of seven,” Moreno said.

Murray motioned for the item be continued so staff could provide more information, but it was voted down. Voting with Tait were Barnes, Moreno, Faessel, and Councilman James Vanderbilt, while Murray and Councilwoman Lucille Kring cast the dissenting votes.

The debate prior to the vote brought to the fore a familiar scene on the council dais — Tait arguing bitterly with Murray and Kring.

Kring said beefing up Tait’s staff is unnecessary, and argued that moving to district-based elections lessens the burden on the mayor to reach out to the entire city.

Recalling a discussion earlier in the meeting about homelessness, Kring said Tait’s request amounted to choosing his staff over helping the homeless.

“We’re supposed to be kind, but this does not show a lot of kindness when you could hire another person for $55,000 and help them pay down their mortgage,” said Kring.

“That is absurd, that is absurd. That’s not even worth arguing,” Tait said.

“It’s not absurd — you don’t even have a response,” said Kring, before Tait gaveled her down.

Tait said all the focus on his aide’s salary has been inappropriate from the start.

“This is a delay tactic – this whole thing is an operation of pettiness,” said Tait. “Her salary has been discussed by far more than anyone in the city.”

This article has been updated.

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

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