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Irvine City Council members decided to double their personal office budgets and remove nearly all safeguards on how they spend that money in a narrow 3-2 vote last night.
Originally set up in 1984, the council’s office budgets went largely unnoticed in city politics until last year, when Councilman Mike Carroll was accused of improperly spending portions of his budget on promoting community events he hosted before the election.
The previous city council decided to retroactively approve Carrol’s spending on the mailers.
Traditionally, the fund provided $80,000 a year to council members to pay for part-time staff members to ease the workload. The council also received an additional roughly $100,000 for their personal part time salaries, office supplies, city travel and trainings.
Those funds were managed by the city manager’s office, and any request to spend the money on something besides its allocation required a vote of the full council. The council also managed a collective pot of council funds that went directly to utilities and funding for city staff.
Under the new system, the entirety of the council’s funding will be put into individual budgets, totalling almost $275,000 apiece. Roughly $82,000 of that money is the money already allocated.
But the remaining $193,000 can be spent largely at each council member’s discretion.
Council members are supposed to get spending requests signed off by the city manager’s office and the finance department, according to interim city manager Marianna Marysheva.
“(Departments) can transfer unused appropriations in their budget. If they have salary savings and they need consultants, or they need to add to a particular contract, they have that flexibility in the budget,” Marysheva said in a phone call last Thursday. “The same rules would apply to council office budgets if approved, that they would have the flexibility to use their total funding allocated within applicable rules and regulations.”
Any unspent funds will also rollover into the council members’ individual budgets for the next year. The only time those budgets will surface during the year is if a council member tries to exceed their full allotment of almost $200,000.
In comparison, the City of Santa Ana, with nearly 45,000 more people than Irvine according to the US Census Bureau, is planning to give its council members just over $136,000 in total on city council salaries and benefits according to their preliminary 2021-22 budget.
The expansion was put forward by Irvine Councilwoman Tammy Kim, who said she felt the raise was necessary to give the council full-time staff members working on a living wage.
“I think this will take us into the right direction of where we need to be, as an economic backbone of the county,” Kim said in a phone call with Voice of OC after the meeting. “We have to make these changes if we want to serve our constituents better.”
Kim said she believed the new funds were exclusively for the aide budget because they were set there by a city ordinance, despite staff’s presentation stating transfers from the aide budget to “non-personnel” purposes were allowed.
Carroll, who seconded Kim’s plan and added the portion allowing unused funds to roll over, said the change represented Irvine’s growth as a city.
“I’d like to support the idea of bringing the city of Irvine out of 1985,” Carroll said at the meeting. “If we’re going to put on our big person pants and be a big person city, we need to do things reflective of a mature city.”
Councilman Larry Agran voted against the new expansion, saying there’s too many questions about how the program would function.
“That’s just an extraordinary amount of money for a council executive assistant who is supposed to help with constituent matters and perhaps with policy initiatives. I was just unclear as to what she (Kim) had in mind, and in the absence of clarity I’m just very concerned that this is going to be resented by the public,” Agran said in a phone call after the meeting.
Mayor Farrah Khan, Carroll and Councilman Anthony Kuo did not respond to requests for comment after the meeting.
Khan, Kim and Carroll voted to pass the deal, while Kuo and Agran voted against it.
There are also questions on how the city is going to fund the expansion.
Under Kim’s proposal, the council members decided to pull from the Orange County Great Park’s sponsorship program funds.
The sponsorship program was created last year, but the council hasn’t approved any sponsorship deals.
The only sponsorship listed on any agendas since the program was a proposed deal with Pepsi to provide vending machines and beverages in the park.
City staff projected that deal would bring in $63,000 for the city in its first year, and $48,000 the next year.
It was pulled from the agenda, with plans to bring it back in May that did not materialize.
To fund the increase in the council’s budget, the city would need $475,000 a year from sponsorships.
It is unclear if any other sponsorships were approved outside of public meetings.
“The whole thing did not seem to me to be well thought through at all,” Agran said. “What the program in its enlarged form would consist of, who would be overseeing it, just a lack of clarity and guidelines I think may be an invitation to abuse.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Santa Ana City Councilmembers received $136,000 apiece for their offices in the proposed 2021-22 budget. The $136,000 is the funding for the entire council’s annual salary and benefits, not their offices. We regret the error.