The Irvine City Council voted on Tuesday night to establish separate annual budgets of just over $100,000 for each council member following a lengthy discussion over what limits should be placed on the funds.
The new system keeps any existing restrictions on the funds in place, but it offers up a different method that would separate out the council’s previously combined budget of just over $500,000 managed by the city manager’s office into accounts of $103,500 directly handled by each council member.
Currently, $80,000 is reserved for the council member’s individual staff budgets and can only be spent on personnel. An additional $10,000 is allocated directly to the city’s community grants system that allows council members to donate to nonprofits of their choice throughout Irvine.
The remaining $13,500 would be allocated as a pot of funds that could go toward other purposes including travel, postage and office supplies.
The city manager’s office will still maintain oversight of the funds for staff and ensure council members do not exceed the set budget limits, along with retaining a small portion of the funds for additional supplies.
In a phone call on Friday morning, Interim City Manager Marianna Marysheva said the new program was the “right thing to do,” and said she hoped it would increase transparency of what individual council members were spending money.
“The only thing that’s changing is right now all the council budgets are under the city manager’s umbrella so it becomes this big pot,” Marysheva said. “There’s no accountability in that, and there’s no transparency.”
“You can request what a particular council member is spending easily (under the new system), and right now it’s not,” Marysheva said. “It’s going to make it easier for everyone involved, especially the taxpayers.”
The new budget measures that were approved by a 4-1 vote follow the council’s decision to retroactively approve nearly $70,000 that Councilman Mike Carroll spent from his staff budget on city mailers last year, an unapproved use of the funds.
Carroll has defended his use of the funds, saying that by updating residents via mailers instead of using a paid staff he provided a greater service to residents during the pandemic.
“I made a very important decision to communicate with thousands and thousands of people that made sense and was still taxpayer neutral,” Carroll said from the dais Tuesday night. “I’m really proud of everything I do as a City Council member and I’m sick and tired of my service being taken in the wrong direction.”
Carroll also brought up potentially removing any restrictions on the $100,000 pot, which never received a vote. But in a phone call after the meeting, he said he was interested in potentially pursuing the idea.
“The issue here for me is simply that we’re all adults, elected members of the city of Irvine and we should be able to spend money provided it follows city protocols and the law,” Carroll said. “This year I felt it was really important to get to residents, particularly elderly and the infirm as best as we could and we couldn’t send aides to people’s homes during the pandemic.”
Councilman Larry Agran, the sole vote against the proposal, said he was concerned about the individual budgets turning into a “taxpayer funded political slush fund,” specifically bringing up concerns with the supplies and mail section of the budget.
“It does not seem to me that council members should have such latitude and lack of oversight,” Agran said at the meeting. “Basically giving each council member over $100,000 and saying go to it, that’s an invitation to real trouble.”
The council will continue discussion on the individual budgets later this year, when city staff are set to present the city’s new two-year budget covering through the end of fiscal year 2023.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.