Council member pay increase proposal faces scrutiny

Following public scrutiny, the city attorney scrapped a proposal this week that could have increased Newport Beach City Council members' pay.

The mayor, a council critic and journalists questioned the proposed change in the city charter.

While members now receive a $15,000 annual stipend to cover their expenses, a proposal before the Charter Update Committee would have allowed members to get that stipend in addition to expenses.

It's unclear whether such a change would have passed the council itself, considering at least one council member opposed the idea.

But the proposal certainly caught peoples' attention.

"That just didn't make any sense to me," Mayor Nancy Gardner said Friday, pointing out that the original intent of the charter was to simply cover their out-of-pocket expenses.

About 40 sections of the city charter, which was adopted in 1954, are up for review by a seven-member resident committee. This compensation question will officially come before the Charter Update Committee next week.

City staff members drafted a red-line version in May that contained the controversial changes.

After reading the suggestions, council critic Jim Mosher contacted the Orange County Register and the Daily Pilot, and wrote to city officials, complaining about the changes.

"It's not necessarily bad for them to have salaries," Mosher said Thursday. "But if they're not in it for the money, then [just] pay for their expenses."

City Attorney Aaron Harp said Friday there was no intention to increase the amount council members could receive, so he asked for another draft of the charter section this week.

"That's why it goes through a process like this," he said. "We're really trying to clean up the ambiguity … the process allows for that."

The new version would just allow for expenses while traveling on official business, plus the stipend — including a $6,000 annual bump for the mayor. It's essentially the same as today's charter, except it changes some of the verbiage.

And that verbiage is key, Mosher argues.

He said that council members' health and pension benefits violate the original charter's intent because the document only allows for "reimbursement" and not "compensation."

The new version would call it compensation.

Newport's council stipend is higher than surrounding cities, according to State Controller data from 2010. That year, council members received $14,000, while Irvine council members received $11,000 and those in other cities received less.

Twitter: @mreicher

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