Lynwood Council Members Enjoy Lavish Perks and Pay
Lynwood has an annual per capita income of only $9,500, but its elected leaders are among the best-paid part-time politicians in California.
A majority of the City Council enjoy six-figure incomes, lavish foreign travel and the generous use of city credit cards for meals and entertainment, including steakhouse dinners, a New York musical and a dance show in Rio de Janeiro.
Travel and credit card expenses by the five-member council have cost taxpayers more than $600,000 over the last five years, records show, and include city-paid trips to Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America.
Council members Louis Byrd and Paul Richards have each made more than 25 out-of-town trips in the last two years.
The travel, Byrd said, helps promote Lynwood, a city of 70,000 residents located at the junction of the Long Beach and Century freeways.
Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, representing the nation’s second-largest city and one of the world’s busiest ports, took nine business trips during the same period.
The council jobs pay annual salaries of $9,600, but three members -- Byrd, Richards and Arturo Reyes -- each earned more than $100,000 in 2000 and 2001, city records show.
Council members boost their salaries by serving on two city agencies, earning $900 for back-to-back meetings that often last only minutes. Council members also collect a $100 per diem to represent Lynwood at local parades, golf tournaments, beauty pageants and USC football’s Salute to Troy.
The appearances and meeting stipends add up. In 2001, Byrd, a former elementary school principal, was paid $121,000; Richards, an attorney, got $110,000.
“We earn every penny of it,” Byrd said.
By comparison, City Council members in Long Beach, which is six times larger than Lynwood and has an international port, are paid $26,000 a year.
Lynwood, one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, can hardly afford its big-spending leaders.
The city’s $1.3-million budget gap in the current $13-million general fund had to be covered with emergency reserves. During budget deliberations, however, council members did not cut their own expenses.
Faustin Gonzalez, who resigned earlier this year as city manager, said he had trouble reining in his free-spending bosses.
“It was extremely difficult to control them,” he said. “If you asked them to justify what they did, sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. If they didn’t, what could you do?”
Lynwood council members do not have to routinely provide receipts for their credit card purchases, nor do they have to receive city approval for out-of-town travel or complete travel reports to account for their trips.
When Byrd was asked by a reporter how he justified charging the city $1,300 to attend his Kappa Alpha Psi college fraternity reunion at a San Diego resort, he said, “I don’t know. You figure it out.”
Critics say the council’s arrogance and extravagant spending is, in part, driving the Sept. 23 recall election against Richards, and will figure in the political futures of Byrd and Reyes, who face reelection in November.
The recall petition, citing Richards’ compensation, accuses him of using the city treasury as his “personal piggy bank.”
“We know that they are wasting a lot of taxpayer funds, and that’s got to stop,” said Salvador Alatorre, who is running for city treasurer in November. “We have to slice the perks and salaries.”
Richards, the city’s dominant political figure during much of his 17-year council tenure, declined to be interviewed for this story.
He said in a written statement that much of his travel involves his membership in such groups as the Independent Cities Assn. and the League of California Cities. He said a 1999 stay at a beach resort in Ghana helped foster trade and cultural ties.
Local government experts say the council’s pay and perquisites are unusual for a city the size of Lynwood.
“I’m not used to seeing those kinds of numbers,” said Gary Milliman, the former Southern California director of the California League of Cities and the city manager of South Gate.
Lynwood’s generous pay has evolved through a combination of voter apathy, scant media scrutiny and limited access to City Hall records, residents and political observers say.
Residents complain that they cannot keep track of how much their elected officials are earning or when they are traveling at taxpayer expense. Miguel Figueroa, a lampshade maker, had to file a lawsuit and wait two years to see city credit card records and council earnings information.
Reyes, who considers himself a reformer, said he agrees with critics who complain that the council is overpaid.
While serving as mayor last year, he cut the number of agency meetings in half. Even so, he and his colleagues still made more than $70,000.
“It’s a flagrant abuse of the public trust,” said Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.
“If this city were wealthy, rolling in dough, then at least the citizens would say, ‘OK, we don’t have to worry about it.’ But this is a poor city that needs every dollar it can gather to pay for services.”
Council members have access to two credit cards for city-related travel purchases, not for personal use, according to memos from former city managers.
Lorry Hempe, the current city manager, said the “primary reason” for the cards is to make it easier for elected officials to secure travel and hotel reservations.
But over the years, the rule appears to have been only loosely followed. Council members have used city credit cards for purchases at book stores, music stores and online retailers, as well as at restaurants such as Ruth’s Chris steakhouse.
Because the credit card statements do not provide details, it is often unclear what was purchased and why it was a city-related expense.
Richards said, as far as he is aware, none of his travel or credit card expenses -- more than $80,000 since 1998 -- have been questioned.
He has spent nearly $14,000 on rental cars from local agencies even though he receives a monthly $500 car allowance.
After inquiries by The Times, Richards wrote that the rental cars are for “security” purposes involving “serious personal threats.” He would not elaborate.
Richards also has spent nearly $3,000 on hotel rooms in downtown Los Angeles, Garden Grove, El Segundo and other cities a few miles from his home. Richards wrote that he needed the rooms while attending local conferences.
He spent $300 for city officials to see a musical at New York’s Lincoln Center because, according to his statement, the city was interested in recruiting one of the show’s performers for a local concert.
Richards wrote that even if some of his past expenses are questioned, they can be reimbursed out of $56,000 that the city owes him in unpaid per diem allowances. The city did not provide an accounting of the debt. Richards wrote that he also has $6,000 on “deposit” with the city if any of his expenses require reimbursement.
Records show that some council members used city credit cards for what appear to be personal purchases.
Byrd, whose credit card statements total about $75,000 since 1998, bought a $620 airline ticket to Hawaii for a woman companion in 2000. He reimbursed the city $313, according to city records. He also spent about $1,800 on gasoline and online purchases. He said he could not explain what the expenses were for.
Reyes, a notary and tax preparer, reimbursed the city for buying jewelry and using a satellite TV service. Records show that he charged $1,152 in airline tickets for his wife to accompany him to Kansas City, Washington, D.C., and Rio de Janeiro. Reyes said he reimbursed the city, but officials could not provide a record of the repayment.
Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Puerto Vallarta and Rio de Janeiro are among the dozens of destinations visited by Lynwood officials over the last few years.
Richards and Byrd have each made about 90 trips to Washington, D.C., New York and other cities in recent years, at times flying first class. Reyes went to Mexico City to attend the 2000 presidential inauguration of Vicente Fox, and former Councilman Ricardo Sanchez went to Guadalajara in 1999 for a mariachi festival.
Credit card records also show that council members have charged hundreds of dollars in hotel costs even when the city had paid their accommodations in advance.
Byrd, for instance, charged $759 at the hotel after the city prepaid $520 for a four-day International Sister Cities conference at the Westin Regina Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. He declined to explain the extra charges.
Richards said hotel costs typically exceed the amount prepaid for several reasons, including taxes and fees, or because hotel stays are longer than expected.
Each election season in Lynwood attracts many council challengers -- their faces plastered on signs up and down Long Beach Boulevard. But don’t expect any of them to change the way Lynwood is run, said Councilman Ramon Rodriguez, who has by far the least travel- and credit card-related expenses.
“Do you know why we have 16 people running” in the November election? he said. “It’s not for the willingness to serve the community, it’s for the willingness to serve themselves.”
Mayor Fernando Pedroza was a harsh council critic when running for city office in 2001. But after joining the council, he quit his job as a plastics salesman and has traveled at least seven times to Mexico, he said, to attract new business.
Pedroza used his city-issued credit card last year to pay for a dinner show featuring samba dancers in Rio de Janeiro. He reimbursed the city last week after inquiries from The Times, saying he “inadvertently pulled out the wrong card.”
Byrd, who helped establish the council’s perquisites during his 12 years in office, said the system is too enticing to reform.
“A whole lot of people are running for the same thing,” he said, “and none are going to turn anything down.”