Opinion: It's Time for Ethical Reform at City Hall

The following is an op-ed submitted by local attorney Robert P. Ottilie who will appear on NBC 7's Politically Speaking at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, April 16 and 9 a.m. Sunday, April 17.

On April 5, 2016, the San Diego Salary Setting Commission (SSC) made its biannual presentation for a “salary ordinance” to the San Diego City Council. The Council refused to even discuss the proposed ordinance. The proposed ordinance identified numerous hidden Council perks, perks most San Diegans have never heard of. And, if Council President Lightner has her way, most San Diegans never will. 

This Commission was created by San Diego voters, in 1973, by amendment to the San Diego Charter. Its members are non-political, as appointments are made by the San Diego Civil Service Commission and not the Mayor or the Council. 

While the SSC makes the initial recommendations on salary and salary related issues, the Council gets to vote up or down on those recommendations. Since 2008, the Commission has recommended the Council end this practice of voting on its own pay. We have proposed the Council place on the ballot a proposed amendment to the City Charter to tie the pay of elected officials to judicial salaries. The San Diego County Supervisors did just that in 1976, 40 years ago. No one has complained since. Notwithstanding our efforts over eight years to let voters decide this key reform, the City Council has repeatedly ignored us. 

In 2014, after the Council killed reform again, the San Diego Grand Jury convened to investigate the Council’s conduct on this issue. Like us, their 2014 report found an unresolvable conflict when Council members set their own pay. They too recommended letting the voters change the process. Predictably, the Council ignored the Grand Jury as well. Ignoring a Grand Jury is, to say the least, not very common. 

The Council’s response to the Grand Jury understandably raised many eyebrows. The SSC decided to dig deeper into Council remuneration to see why Council members were fighting so hard to keep the voters from resolving this gross conflict. What we found was troubling. 

As a result, our salary proposal this year includes six other ethical reforms, all of which are designed to eliminate hidden perks. Those reforms, which have been referred to as the most comprehensive ethical reforms in San Diego history, were also ignored by the Council on April 5th. The Council refused to even discuss them! 

Both before and after our presentation, Council President Sherri Lightner essentially declared our reform recommendations out of order, claiming that the Commission had superseded its Charter authority by recommending anything other than next year’s salary. According to her, our recommendation to place a proposed Charter amendment on the ballot in November, which would let you adopt the ethical reforms, could not even be discussed. 

At the City, it seems, it is always “out of order” when citizen groups are threatening some sacred political cow. 

What are the reforms that the Council President, and some others, have fought so hard to preclude you from even seeing, let alone voting upon? 

First, we propose essentially eliminating gifts to our elected offices, to include Council Members, the Mayor and City Attorney. Anyone with a cursory understanding of how City Hall works, knows that people or groups principally give gifts in order to either buy access or influence. That helps the wealthy, but not those of you who do not have that kind of money, or have not learned how “gifting” is discreetly done at the City. We propose ending this practice. Let’s level the playing field. 

Second, the SSC proposes eliminating a $9,600 a year car allowance that is available for every Council member ($800 a month). Council members can receive this even if they do not drive a single mile for the City. Most San Diegans have never heard of this perk. Imagine what kind of a car you could own with $800 a month if you could just vote yourself such an allowance from taxpayer money. Almost all other employees in California get reimbursed mileage actually driven. We propose having our elected officials follow the same policies that the rest of us have to live by. Why should they be different? If they want special treatment, let us as their employers approve it, not them. 

Our third proposal would ban earned income from outside employment by our elected officials. If they want full time pay, and we all know they do, they need to work full time just for us. That reform just makes sense. 

Our fourth reform would preclude our elected officials going to Padres and Chargers and sitting in luxury skyboxes. If they want to go to the game, they should buy a ticket like the rest of us have to do, if we can afford it. For 50 years, they have had free tickets to use, or as they often have done, given to their pals or voters. Why are politicians directing Charger skybox tickets, with a value that may approach $1,000 to voters? Maybe once they see how much luxury skybox tickets actually cost, a luxury most San Diegans can’t afford, they will reevaluate their support for giving hundreds of millions of dollars of public money away to the Chargers and Padres. 

Our fifth proposal extends to two years a current 1-year restriction on City officials from lobbying the City after they leave office. Our goal is to pay our elected officials enough that they do not have to trade-in on their office after they leave and make even more money out of it. 

Sixth, and most significantly, our proposal ends, once and for all, this improper practice of the City Council voting on its own pay. You and I do not get to vote on our own pay. Why should they? 

Every other major jurisdiction in Southern California, including the Los Angeles County Supervisors and Los Angeles City Council, and the San Diego County Supervisors, long ago tied their pay to judicial salaries. The San Diego County Supervisors did this 40 years ago. We propose letting the voters decide this, just like Los Angeles voters who voted in 1990 to tie L.A. Council salaries to judicial pay. 

Our seventh proposal would preclude the use of taxpayer dollars to support elected officials when they are running for reelection or for another office. This precludes the use of taxpayer financed “constituent mailings” in the 75 days before an election. Who could oppose this reform, except perhaps a politician?

Council Members Marti Emerald and Scott Sherman have been leading the campaign for ethical reforms since 2014, before the Grand Jury investigation. Kudos to them. Council Members Myrtle Cole, David Alvarez and Todd Gloria also supported reform in 2014, when they were allowed a vote.

Reform proposals have reached the full Council or a Council committee 11 times since 2008. Those have come forward from the SSC, the Grand Jury and once from a private citizen. Incredibly, not once has there been an up or down vote that could have sent the reform proposal to the ballot. Not once. Some council members are clearly afraid of losing their perks, or even letting voters know they have been taking them.

Please join the SSC in demanding an up or down vote by the full Council to place The Comprehensive Ethics Reform package before the voters in November. Every San Diegan deserves to know if their council member supports or opposes ethical reforms. Let’s all back reformers Emerald and Sherman to get this to the voters.

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