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Ojai City Council Split Over Pay Raise

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a plan to raise their own compensation by 333% set for a final vote Tuesday, City Council members are fully expecting howls of outrage.

But not from the public.

Indeed, most people who spoke at a public hearing last month favored adding a proposed $250 monthly expense reimbursement to council members’ $75 monthly salary, which has remained unchanged since 1968 and today is the lowest city council pay in Ventura County.

The opposition to the increase has come mostly from within the council, dividing a once cohesive group and leaving a bitter taste in some mouths.

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For veteran Councilwoman Nina Shelley, the issue has more to do with upholding the public trust and pledging to serve constituents no matter what the pay in a community that has always valued volunteerism.

No one disputes that a $325 monthly salary would still be a relatively nominal sum that doesn’t reflect the long hours council members contribute.

“It isn’t the money so much as it is the principle,” said the 76-year-old Shelley, who at one point even threatened to resign if the pay hike was approved. “I didn’t take this job to make money, and I knew going in what it was all about. . . . I am so concerned about the cynicism and the distrust of the public that to give them the impression that somebody is feeding at the public trough is the wrong impression as far as I’m concerned.”

But first-term Councilwoman Suza Francina, the chief architect of the pay increase proposal, said, “No one is going to get richer from this amount of money.” She sees the issue as updating an outmoded level of compensation to ensure adequate political representation in the 1990s.

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“To serve should not be a hardship,” she said. “I think it’s important there should be people on the council who are retired, people of different economic brackets, women, working people, so that the entire community is represented on the City Council. And when you have diversity, you have people in different stages of life, and for some people, that compensation is important.”

Panel’s 3 Working Members OKd Raise

It is the three working members of the council--yoga instructor Francina, school Principal Steve Olsen and museum director Ellen Hall--who supported the increase in an initial vote last month. Retirees Shelley and Mayor Joe DeVito opposed it.

The community, however, seems more unified.

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The board of directors of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce adopted a position calling for increasing the salary stipend to $300 a month. A petition was submitted to the city by residents supporting the idea. And the majority of the half a dozen or so speakers at a public hearing last month also supported the raise, to the surprise of City Manager Andy Belknap.

“My expectation of it is that it wouldn’t be positively viewed, but it is being positively viewed by most of the people who spoke,” he said. “It’s a sensitive issue because any time you talk about your own salary it’s a difficult position to be in.”

Ojai officials have reason to be wary.

The Ventura County Area Housing Authority was taken to task in 1996 for perceived indiscretions that included doubling commissioners’ meeting pay to $100.

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Top state elected officials found themselves the target of a fusillade of criticism earlier this year when they received pay raises ranging from 26% to 34%.

And just last month supervisors in Orange County--still recovering from its bout with bankruptcy--approved hefty pay raises for themselves and other county employees. The 6% increase for Orange County’s board members will translate into a salary next fiscal year of $92,206 each, making them second only to their counterparts in Los Angeles County as the highest-paid supervisors in the state.

“Government service is government service,” huffed one supervisor opposed to the increase. “You don’t go into government service to make a killing.”

Said another critic: “I think we need more accountability from the Board of Supervisors.”

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Which is pretty much the tenor of what is being said in Ojai, too.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are upset--not that we’re getting more money--but they’re opposed to the way we’re doing it,” Mayor DeVito said. “They feel there should be an accountability with the money we spend.”

Council members are likely to vote themselves the raise in the form of a non-itemized expense reimbursement because they can’t raise their own monthly salaries without voter approval.

The amount was set by voters in 1968--when they halved what had been a $150 monthly salary in what some officials say was an election ploy by a well-to-do council candidate--and so cannot be raised without another vote of the people.

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Francina said she initially wanted residents to vote on the raise at the ballot box this fall, but was discouraged from doing so by city officials.

Getting in Line With Other Small Cities

In a report to the council, Belknap noted that with three council seats being contested on the November ballot, as well as ratification of a 2% increase in the city’s bed tax, many local measures “can become confusing, and opposition to one measure could color opinion on others.”

But there is little sense among most people the council is attempting to circumvent the voter-approved pay level.

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Councilwoman Hall, who went on record in January as being opposed to voting herself any compensation increase, said she now feels comfortable doing so because people spoke out in support of it at the public hearing.

Furthermore, the compensation is roughly in line with state law, which allows a salary of as much as $300 a month, she noted.

The increase would also bring Ojai, with a population of about 8,000, into line with other small local cities, such as Santa Paula and Moorpark, where elected officials’ salaries are $300 a month.

Council members’ wages in the county range from a low of $75 a month in Ojai and Fillmore to a high of $1,026 a month in Thousand Oaks.

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Nevertheless, Shelley, a former Marine who will step down from the council this fall after 16 years, remains not merely opposed to the proposal, but “devastated” by it, she said.

She sees it as not only an ethical issue, but a source of conflict on the panel.

“I’d rather see it go away,” she said. “Several weeks ago I had really had it, and I felt like resigning. That’s not my style. I was just terribly upset, and frankly I don’t like having my final term end this way--contentiously.

“But I thought about the people who have supported me these last 16 years, and I didn’t feel like running out at the last minute. I need to finish my job. I gave my word, and if you can’t keep your word, you can’t be counted on for much. That’s old Marine Corps training.”

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DeVito too believes that the issue has brought some simmering feelings to the fore on the council.

Francina is unrepentant.

“Everyone thinks it’s quite refreshing I aired this out,” she said. “I’ve done nothing wrong or unethical.

“Anyone on the council who doesn’t want this compensation can decline, or they can give it to another organization,” she added. “By voting for it you are simply acknowledging that people are serving who need this compensation.”

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