It’s difficult for elected officials to boost their own pay, as they will likely aggravate voters already dissatisfied with politicians.

To avoid this sticky situation, city governments often determine their salaries through outside factors such as inflation, or they appoint an independent commission to make the difficult decisions.

But in Los Angeles, the move to take the salary decisions away from the City Council has yielded such high pay, that some elected officials have felt compelled to refuse raises.

At $178,789, Los Angeles City Council salaries are the highest in the nation, higher even than costlier cities like New York, whose council members earn $112,500, and San Francisco, at $95,868. The Chicago City Council earns $110,556.

The high salaries are the result of a decision to make Los Angeles’ elected officials compensation consistent and equal with the pay of Municipal Judges, which was approved by voters almost two decades ago as part of an ethics reform ballot measure.

The Municipal Court later merged with the higher paid Superior Court bench, giving all LA City elected officials a bigger boost in pay.  Superior judges salaries are determined by the state legislature, and their latest raise was in 2007 when legislators backed an 8.5 percent increase to their salaries.

In Los Angeles, city officials automatically benefited from this raise, which was the latest of four increases in two and a half years. However, a handful of Council Members actually refused their salary hikes, perhaps thinking it was excessive in the midst of a looming recession.  

Council Members Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Janice Hahn and Jack Weiss, chose to leave their salaries at $171,648, refusing the $7,100 raise. Dennis Zine was among those who accepted the raise but said he would donate it to a local charity.

Some City officials believe the system is completely out of whack.

“There is no rhyme or reason in connecting LA elected [officials] to Superior Court Judges,” says Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick, who also rejected a salary increase that would have boost her pay to $196,667. Similarly, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declined a raise that would have set his salary at $232,425. Even after the pay cut, Villaraigosa’s salary is still higher than that of mayors of almost all other cities in the country.

“There needs to be a change in how City elected [officials’] salaries are determined,” says Chick, who is termed out of office, and will be replaced by recently elected Controller Wendy Greuel. “What should happen now is a discussion by the City Council on how best to accomplish that.”

Linking salaries to judicial pay has had the inadvertent consequence of fueling a public perception that salaries are over inflated as the city faces a $400 million deficit.

For one, Kris Vosburgh, Executive Director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, says there is no question that Los Angeles City Council members are “tremendously overpaid.”

“It’s just an insult when they’re making three or four times as much as the average Los Angeles resident,” Vosburgh says.

After voters approved extending term limits through measure R, he says, “LA council members have 12 years to enjoy their lavish salaries and benefits.”

“What ever happened to public service as a sacrifice that citizens make to improve our community? This is a way to make a very good salary that a lot of these folks would struggle to make in the private sector.”

Reporter Patrick Range Mcdonald recently wrote in an LA Weekly article: “The L.A. City Council salaries are not just over inflated in an era of belt-tightening. They are only a hair below the salaries of Congress, and are higher than those of federal judges. They amount to a staggering 400 percent of Los Angeles’ median household income of $46,000 — and no other city council, in cities poor or rich, comes even close to that troubling disparity between public servant and the public.”

Vosburgh says the high pay for judges is justified to lure the best and brightest to the bench, but that there is a complete disconnect between the merits of raising judges’ salaries and those of the Los Angeles City Council.

“You need to be able to provide enough money to have these legal experts give up their private practice and take up a seat on the bench. These are lawyers that have legal education, have doctorates, and make a decent salary in the private sector, sometimes they will even take a pay cut to work at the Superior Court. But this situation is not comparable to City Council members,” he says.

But Bob Stern, President of the Center for Governmental Studies, a non profit that conducts research and policy analysis, sees no problem with linking LA elected officials salary to judicial pay.

The public, he says, will always think elected officials’ salaries are over inflated.

“The public doesn’t want to pay the council members one dollar. It doesn’t really matter what the salary is, the public thinks it’s too much.”

In all likelihood a Council that sets its own salary will be more inclined to set a lower pay for itself, as it will be concerned with voter’s disapproval. Stern says there are clear benefits to linking LA elected officials salaries to the pay of Superior Judges.

 “The advantage to the voters is that elected officials can’t earn outside earned income, as part of the agreement where the salary would match the judges,” he explains.

Preventing elected officials from holding other jobs greatly reduces conflicts of interest.

“I don’t think there are any other bodies in California that ban outside earned income other than Los Angeles, so they are getting paid higher, but the tradeoff is that they are not able to earn any outside earned income. So it doesn’t bother me that they are getting paid this amount of money,” he said.

But Vosburgh, from the Taxpayers Association, disagrees.

On the contrary, he says, city officials would be more accountable and would set more reasonable salaries if they voted on their own pay, and could benefit from a raise only after they stood for re-election.

“As it is now, if you don’t like what they’ve done and you don’t agree with them being the highest paid council members in the nation, there’s not much you can do about it,” Vosburgh said.