Los Angeles City Council members are the nation’s highest paid at $178,789 per year. The part-time Washington, D.C. council is next at $130,538. New York’s part-time council makes $121,725 per year.
The L.A. Council costs the most per seat, $1.7 million, employs staff of over 300, and each receives a car (with parking meter immunity) and a $100,000 yearly taxpayer-financed slush fund.
A part-time council would benefit city governance. In addition to savings, a part-time council provides access to a more diverse field of professionals. Candidates would not have to leave their private or public sector careers to serve. A part-time council takes advantage of talent and experience from outside City Hall – members that create jobs and balance budgets on a regular basis. City Hall could use a daily dose of the real world.
There are examples of successful part-time councils all over L.A. County and the nation. Of the 88 cities in L.A. County, only Los Angeles is full-time.
Six of the ten largest cities in the nation have part-time councils: New York, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas. Only four of the ten largest cities have full-time councils: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Jose, with three of the four in California – one of the most mismanaged states in the nation.
The L.A. City Council would be transformed – from a full-time body looking to benefit personally from high salaries, huge staffs and perks – into a part-time body drawing from significant contributions from its members. Building individual political empires would diminish, while voluntary civic service would expand.
The full-time L.A. Council only works part-time anyway.
California Public Records Act requests show records filled with “excused” absences or early leaves. The L.A. Council appears to work on a “rotation” schedule enabling it to conduct business with the minimum needed for a quorum while allowing the maximum time-off spread among members.
Shockingly, this headline ran in the Los Angeles Times on March 8, 2010: “Automatic ‘yes’ votes allow time for back-room dealing at City Hall.” The sub-heading read, “Thanks to voting software, City Council members can hold meetings, give interviews, even grab a smoke while deciding the day’s issues.” When voters went to the polls, “computer” wasn’t on the ballot. Why are we spending millions on council members when a computer is making the decisions?
Has the full-time L.A. Council been successful?
“Los Angeles today is a city in secular decline. Its current political leadership seems determined … to leave behind a dense, government-dominated, bankrupt, dysfunctional Athens by the Pacific.” [Wall Street Journal, Joel Kotkin, “How Los Angeles Lost Its Mojo” 7/29/2011]. Since 2005 there have been numerous Council failures even at the most basic level.
And, the L.A. Council serves as the taxpayer-funded after-party for State Assembly members (e.g., Alarcon (Assemblyman and Senator), Krekorian (Assemblyman), Cardenas (Assemblyman), Wesson (Assembly Speaker), Koretz (Assemblyman), and Villaraigosa (Assembly Speaker)). A part-time council will solve this problem.
What about conflicts of interest?
It is the full-time nature of the L.A. Council itself that has likely led to its presiding over one of the most corrupt city governments in the country. Some city departments are under FBI investigation.
At least half of the Council have faced conflict of interest allegations. Garcetti, Wesson, Huizar and Cardenas for accepting free tickets to Hollywood events from those doing business with the city. Hahn and Cardenas for ties to a company bidding for an airport concessions contract. Perry for directing funds for a park close to her condo near the Grand Avenue project while serving on the Grand Avenue Authority. Alarcon for charges of perjury and voter fraud. And Greuel for her office’s use of the corrupt “Gold Card Desk.”
More corruption is evidenced by the Center for Governmental Studies’ “Money and Power in the City of Angels” finding that the L.A. Council votes unanimous more than 99% of the time. “The nearly perfect unanimous voting record of Los Angeles City Council makes it almost impossible to detect linkages between campaign contributions and council legislative decisions. If any relationship does exist, it is hidden behind closed doors.” [Report, p. 5].
A part-time council would significantly reduce conflicts and other forms of corruption.
Isn’t Los Angeles too big and complex for a part-time council?
Critics argue that there’s not enough time to get things done with a part-time council. But there are numerous examples around the country and County of part-time councils effectively and efficiently governing big and complex cities.
It is the full-time status itself that leads to failure. The high salaries, slush funds, bloated staffs, and attractive perks all come from the council’s full-time status. Part-time status removes such poisonous elements and incentives for corruption and promotes a volunteer, civic-minded approach to local governance. And that will attract a different type of candidate with a more diverse base of experience.
This critical reform will take a voter-approved amendment to the Charter. This can be done!
Kevin James is an attorney, radio broadcaster, former Asst. U.S. Attorney, and Candidate for LA Mayor