Editorial: Are council's small salaries a scandal?

However one feels about the Laguna Beach City Council, no one can say they are in it for the money. The five council members take home a pittance of $560 a month, plus expenses, for a job that is certainly more than part time.

Yet this is nearly twice the $300 that is prescribed in the California Code governing compensation for elected officials in a general law city of the size of Laguna. The reason for the increase, we're told, is a provision that permits 5% annual increases, which have been accruing for some 20 years.

While the exorbitant salaries of the City Council and top administrators of the city of Bell in Los Angeles County have piqued interest in what our elected and appointed officials collect for their duties, it is clear that most of the state's part-time politicians are not getting anything close to a "living wage" for their work.

Most of the council members in Laguna are or have been "working people," with one employed as a law school faculty member, another as a public relations consultant, another a tavern owner, and two are retired, one from a position as a college counselor and one as the Laguna Beach City Clerk. Many of them have investments, of course, which help their bottom line.

A review of city salaries shows that Laguna Beach, despite its financial health and high property values, is well within the average range of compensation for cities of its size.

The highest-compensated city official, City Manager Ken Frank, is also one of the longest-tenured in the city's government.

It is no accident that city councils tend to be populated by retirees and older, established people.

We know that the paltry sum that Laguna's council members receive has dissuaded some younger people from running for office and has driven some serving members out of office when they feel financial pressure.

The Bell fiasco is still unwinding its scroll of shocking misdeeds and the fallout for that beleaguered city has been enormous. But on the "up" side, all municipalities are now under greater scrutiny from a watchdog public and from government officials — particularly in Sacramento — who do not want to be seen as looking the other way as taxpayers get a fleecing.

It's a balancing act. On the one hand, citizens shouldn't be subject to the machinations of scheming city officials who spend most of their time figuring out how to raid the public coffers. On the other hand, city officials should be compensated fairly or there is the risk of under-the-table dealings to make ends meet, or a lack of diversity in our elected officials.

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