The Los Angeles City Council spends the most money – about $1.7 million per seat – and pays the highest salaries – an average $178,789 – of 15 cities examined in a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust's Philadelphia Research Initiative.
Two other California city councils included in the report – San Diego and San Jose – increased their spending slightly even as budgets were slashed during the recession, the study shows. According to the report, San Diego’s 2011 council budget makes up 0.95 percent of the total city budget – up from 0.88 in 2008. San Jose’s council is estimated to spend 0.86 percent of its local budget in 2011 – increased from 0.75 percent in 2008.
The 15 city councils – including the three from California – cost local taxpayers a median of about $607,000 per seat last year, made up mostly of salaries and benefits for staff and members, the report shows. LA is one of three that also provides a city-owned vehicle to each member. (Others provide an auto allowance or reimbursement.)
The majority of the councils, including San Diego, do not post personal financial disclosure statements or lobbying records on city websites. (LA and San Jose do make such disclosures readily available.)
“City councils were heavily involved in (spending) decisions, and councils’ own spending levels have come under scrutiny,” the researchers wrote. “Are councils consuming a bigger or smaller slice of the tax pie?”
The issue is timely as the saga in Bell, Calif. – where all but one of the current council members faces corruption charges – continues. Last year six current and former council members and two city officials were charged with misappropriating more than $5.5 million in public funds.
The city faces a budget deficit of up to $4.5 million and could be unable to pay its bills as early as May. At a press conference Friday, interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo warned that he might have to get rid of the police department, the LA Times reported.
The Pew report also looked at staffing, some electoral conditions, tenure, and representation of minority groups and women.
In addition to raising questions about fiscal responsibility during a recession, the Pew researchers said the report’s findings are important because of the upcoming “once-a-decade redistricting process that will define the parameters of local political representation for the next 10 years.”
With just one council member for every 225,000 residents, the LA City Council is currently the least representative, researchers found. It also has the second-lowest percentage – 13 percent – of first-termers.
Asians are the most underrepresented, making up 11 percent of the city's population but holding no city council seats. Only 13 percent of the council is female, making women in LA the least represented of any city included in the study, although they are a minority on the other councils as well.
The report also looked at the number of summer weeks city councils go without holding any meetings. Philadelphia topped the list at 12 weeks. The longest gap for the LA City Council was just two weeks, the shortest time period of any city in the report.
The amount of time a council member stays in office was also a subject of the report. Aside from term limits, a "number of factors affect the desirability of anyone's retaining a seat long-term," researchers said. "Among them are pay, benefits, and the ability of council members to work with the mayor to get things done."
San Diego council members serve an average of 2.7 years, the lowest number, along with Houston, of the councils surveyed. San Diego had the most members in their first term – three-fourths of the council.
San Jose is the only city council with no African American representation. African Americans make up 3 percent of the population, but there are none on the council. The Hispanic population is 33 percent, but only 9 percent are represented. Asians, however, represent 33 percent of the population and hold 27 percent of the seats.