At $184,610 per year, Los Angeles City Council members are drastically overpaid.
They earn more than the governor ($177,467), more than members of Congress ($174,000), more than members of the California Assembly and Senate ($97,197). They earn more than members of the nation's other big city councils — including those in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
And they earn much, much more than the average Angeleno. In fact, an L.A. City Council salary is nearly five times the median pay for a full-time job in Los Angeles. Five times! When you add in the free car, the pension and the campaign-funded meals and travel, a job on the council is extremely lucrative.
And what does Los Angeles have to show for its gold-plated City Council? A balanced budget? No. A plan to fix the 60-year backlog of broken streets? Nope. Has the council figured out how to streamline city permitting so it's easier for businesses to set up shop and expand in L.A.? Still working on it.
But even if the council were spectacularly effective, members' salaries would still be out of whack with those of other elected officials and the public they represent. That is not good public policy.
Consider, for example, that the mayor and the council members are currently trying to convince municipal employees to forgo raises, pay more for their healthcare and sign off on reduced pension benefits for new hires to help reduce the budget deficit. Surely, the over-generous pay for L.A.'s elected officials undermines their call for sacrifice.
The high salary and cushy perks have attracted many career politicians to the City Council — particularly state senators and Assembly members who are only too happy to leave their lower-paid jobs in Sacramento for City Hall. Today, former state legislators make up half the council, which is one reason there is little diversity of experience or opinion among its members.
City politicians used to set their own pay, but in 1990, voters wisely took that decision out of their hands, pegging the pay of council members, the mayor and other city officials to the salaries of Municipal Court judges. Then, 10 years later, the state merged the two court systems and municipal judges became Superior Court judges, who get paid more and have gotten larger increases to keep pace with private-sector attorney salaries. As a result, city officials have doubled their pay over the last two decades, and their salaries have grown faster than inflation — they make nearly $30,000 more than they would if their salaries had been tied to inflation.
Certainly council members — and all elected city officials — have demanding jobs that require skills, experience and a tremendous time commitment. They should be paid well for their important work. But there is a difference between being well paid and being extravagantly paid. Voters in 1990 approved the former, they've got the latter, and it's time for city officials — or the voters — to reset the pay scale.