(Los Angeles on $300,000 a year is a cover story published by LA Weekly on Feb. 25, 2009. Link to the full investigation is at bottom. As developer money and FBI/IRS probes of City Councilmember Jose Huizar roil City Hall in late 2018, it’s worth reading the only modern-era deep dive behind the curtain at City Hall.)
(And don’t miss the sidebar, “How L.A. City Council Got Those Huge $178,789 Salaries.”)
On a Wednesday morning, January 28, Karoline Steavenson, a blond, middle-aged substitute teacher and single mother of grown children, drove to downtown Los Angeles from Burbank with a five-page speech she wanted to deliver at a Los Angeles City Council meeting. The night before, Steavenson had watched news reports from Wilmington, where Ervin Lupoe had slain his wife, five children, then himself, after being fired over alleged workplace fraud. The Lupoe bloodbath hit a nerve with Steavenson, who is struggling in the job market, and has a learning-disabled brother. She decided to confront the 15 members of the L.A. City Council in person.
“I came to talk to them and let them know help is not easy to find,” Steavenson said later.
Yet the part-time teacher had no idea what awaited her — “Elephant Day” at the John Ferraro Council Chamber, where the Los Angeles City Council would decide if the construction of a multimillion-dollar elephant exhibit at the L.A. Zoo should move forward. The elephant controversy had soaked up hundreds of hours of time, even as city officials faced the worst financial crisis in decades. …
Elephant Day unfolded over the next three hours. At various points during testimony, the heavyset, swell-suited Council District 4 representative Tom LaBonge excitedly conferred with Maria Elena Durazo, the powerful county federation of labor chief, while Westside Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Valley Councilman Tony Cardenas consulted with Cher, who wore wraparound sunglasses as she sat beneath the council chambers’ huge chandeliers.
Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, the likable liberal who represents District 13 and struggles to focus this powerful body on anything of importance, told (comedian Lily) Tomlin at one point to stand down. … The theater of the absurd didn’t end with the council vote to finish building the zoo exhibit: Cardenas escorted Cher to a nearby photo op, then whisked her away to a private elevator refurbished by L.A. taxpayers — yet off-limits to all but City Hall insiders. LaBonge stood on the steps of City Hall, excitedly saying, “I could talk all day, but I really need to get back to work!” then vanished into a side room, never to return to the chambers, where business, such as it is, was still being conducted. …
With the highest city council salaries in the nation, at $178,789 per year [now $185,904], Los Angeles City Council is possibly the highest-paid elected city body on the planet. Its pay far outstrips that of councils in costlier New York City, whose members earn a mere $112,500, and San Francisco, whose members earn $95,868. Los Angeles council members earn about 70 percent more than the piddling pay of the Chicago City Council, at $110,556.
On March 3 2009, seven Los Angeles City Council members are up for re-election. Each will be easily re-elected in a primary election few Angelenos know is taking place. The rest will be recrowned in 2011, barring some natural disaster that focuses blame on City Hall. The one seat truly up for grabs March 3 is the tony Fifth Council District, being vacated by Jack Weiss, who is running for city attorney in a wide-open race (See separate story, “They Just Don’t Like Jack Weiss,” by Christine Pelisek, in News).
The L.A. City Council salaries are not just overinflated in an era of belt-tightening. They are only a hair below the salaries of Congress, and are higher than those of federal judges. …
Each council member enjoys a free car, maintenance and gas costing $6,000 to $15,000 annually (Garcetti’s electric-car lease costs taxpayers $3,900 but saves on fuel); each gets a petty-cash fund of $5,000; and each receives a dubious, $100,000, yearly taxpayer-financed slush fund, which amounts to walking-around money that they can dole out to anyone — family members or gangbangers if they choose — as long as they don’t spend it on religious proselytizing or political races.
Added up, L.A.’s council members get by on about $300,000 a year [far more in 2018]. Roughly another $1.3 million annually — per council district — pays for each of their personal staffs of 16 to 32 people, up to eight more free cars and more free gasoline [far more in 2018].
There is nothing in the world like the Los Angeles City Council, and some suggest that’s the problem. By law, it is the chief legislative body here, and its core duty is to hammer out major policies and enact laws to improve L.A. Taxpayers are showering the 15 with the salaries, staffs and tools to accomplish just that. But there is little evidence that L.A. gets what it pays for.
The past four years are a litany of City Council failures at the most basic level. The members admit that they never discussed what a digital billboard was, or its intrusive impact, before quickly approving them citywide; they okayed a $2.7 million payout for the hazing of Los Angeles firefighter Tennie Pierce so fast they never looked at files on their desks, which showed photos of prankster Pierce hazing others; many now admit they had no idea what made up the $1 billion to $3.6 billion solar plan, Measure B, but stuck it on next week’s ballot anyway.
Even basic infrastructure problems stump this council. They squabbled over selling valuable city land throughout the run-up in land values, and now that they’re desperate for funds, council members plan to hold an embarrassing fire sale of the public’s land.
Read the rest of this 2009 investigative report at Los Angeles on $300,000 a Year!