Councilman’s Reimbursement for Lost Wages Sets Off Heated Debate
The City Council has agreed to pay Councilman Warren Harwood $2,284 to compensate earnings he lost while fighting a recent lawsuit, a move that sparked a biting debate between the well-off and the working-class members of the diverse council.
The controverisal decision to repay Harwood for 94 hours of wages lost from his regular 40-hour-a-week job came over the objections of Councilman Evan Anderson Braude and Mayor Ernie Kell. As mayor, Kell had no vote on the matter, but he clearly had an opinion.
“I had to give depositions when I was a council member, and I never considered getting reimbursed,” Kell, a wealthy developer, said after Tuesday’s council meeting. “We’ve never had a councilman ask to be paid for this. I think it’s part of his job.”
“It’s easy for the mayor, with his million dollars, to say he would never claim the time,” responded Harwood, a county employee with three children and a mortgage.
The part-time position of city councilman pays about $18,000 a year, requiring nearly all of the members to hold outside employment. Councilmen often are called on to appear in court, but Tuesday was the first time in memory that one of them has been reimbursed for it.
Harwood asked the city to pay him for 11 days wages lost this month while he was in court fighting a lawsuit filed by the owners of a gay bar who claimed that he drove them out of business by attempting to block their entertainment license. A jury found in favor of Harwood.
The council voted 5 to 1 for the reimbursement. Only Braude voted against Harwood’s request. Harwood abstained. Councilmen Ray Grabinski and Wallace Edgerton were absent. “I was recently subpoenaed and had to spend four hours testifying in court (on city business),” said Braude, an attorney. “But I didn’t go out and bill the city for $175 an hour for time lost in my law office.”
Harwood argued that the lawsuit stemmed from his work as a councilman and required him to sit in court for several days over three weeks time. His presence there made it impossible to attend to his duties as a projects coordinator for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, he said.
Noting that some council members are relatively well off while others live from paycheck to paycheck, Harwood said he could not have managed with the lost wages.
“My last paycheck from my job with the county was $5.85. My bank account was overdrawn. We don’t have a lot of money, and for my kids to suffer is foolish,” the veteran councilman said.
The city, originally named as a defendant in the lawsuit that sought at least $200,000 in damages, was dropped shortly before the trial started. City attorneys continued to represent Harwood at the trial, however, and the city would have been responsible for paying the judgment had Harwood lost, the councilman said.
“It would have cost the city more than what we reimbursed Harwood,” Councilman Clarence Smith said. “It was protecting the city taxpayers to make sure Harwood was present.”
Whether the council members will continue to be reimbursed for a service they formerly performed for free remains to be seen. As Harwood noted, no one could recall billing the city for such services, but neither could anyone recall a councilman being asked to do without more than two weeks’ pay.