The jury is still out – Part Two

Let’s pick up from where we left off.

In his January 25th Brea Net newsletter, recapping part of the City Council meeting of June 7, council member Roy Moore wrote, “… council members Schweitzer, Garcia and Murdock knew, presumably informed by the city manager, that they were included in the executive classification, and knowingly voted themselves this raise making no reference to it during the discussion. Neither council member Simonoff nor I was aware of these facts.”

Wow, where do I begin?

I’m not a lawyer, I haven’t played one on TV and I didn’t spend the night in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

So before I launched into any wild speculations, I sent a copy of council member Moore’s newsletter to the Special Prosecutions Unit with the Orange County District Attorney.

I will say that they have been as helpful as possible considering it may be some time before any sort of formal investigation could occur.

In my mind, the fact that council member Moore felt it necessary to document the series of events surrounding the bequeathment of increased flex benefits, kicks this matter up a notch from rumor to allegation.

The biggest question remains, is what Council and/or the City Manager did regarding the flex benefits fiasco illegal or not?

How did this all get started?

Back in late 1990, Council (Blamer, Isles, Leyton, Wedin and Nelson) decided that, in addition to their modest monthly stipend, they deserved to also receive medical, dental and life insurance benefits as well.

They established a Flexible Plan (hence the lingering term flex benefits), the details of which are specified in Resolution No. 90-131.

Participation was “voluntary” but, to my knowledge, no council member then or since has not taken advantage of the benefit.

In effect, they made themselves “members” of the Public Employees’ Retirement System which required that they receive medical insurance as mandated by the Meyers-Geddes Medical and Hospital Care Act. In 1990 this amounted to another $430 a month each.

The resolution also specified that their benefits, now tied to the employees, would always be equal thereby ensuring periodic increases. And this is where it started to get real sticky. From this point forward it became almost impossible to get anyone to admit exactly what Council received as a total compensation package.

But wait, there’s more!

In early 2001 they passed another resolution (No. 01-11) superseding the decade old resolution. This new resolution detached them from the workforce employees and attached them to the Executive Managers, with the provision for matching increases still a part of the plan. Oh, and they bumped their flex benefit up to $729 a month.

Four council members voted in favor of this (Harvey, Perry, Simonoff and Moore) one council member voted against (Vargas).

[Ed. Note 02/18 – as Mr. Fullington pointed out in his comment, somewhere between 2001 and 2011 Council slipped themselves another $321 a month. Likely buried in a multi-topic Consent Item, and perhaps equally devoid of accurate accounting of fiscal impact, it may prove hard to find.]

This brings us to the June 7, 2011 meeting, the allegations made by council member Moore above and the comedy of errors that followed as Council tried desperately to do damage control.

First, council members individually requested that their raise in flex benefits be reduced from $1,600 per month back to the $1,050 they received before they “accidentally” gave themselves a raise.

Turned out this wasn’t the most brilliant approach since any one of them could reinstate the raise anytime they chose.

After discovering that the Mayor couldn’t unilaterally place an item on the agenda for discussion (he needed “approval” of at least two other members) and a lot of heated bantering back and forth, then Mayor Moore finally got it on the agenda for their December 20th meeting.

Roy pulls a rabbit out of a hat!

Mayor Moore had to call a special meeting for December 19, which he as Mayor could do funny enough. A strategically smart move on Roy’s part, as Schweitzer and O’Donnell were forced to capitulate and put the item in the Study Session agenda for the 20th.

With almost no discussion, after months of angry stonewalling, Council unanimously passed Resolution No. 2011-101, officially returning their flex benefit to $1,050 and detaching their flex benefits from the Executive Managers.

That’s not all!  Guess what happened to their $3,600 retroactive benefit?

Moore, Simonoff, Schweitzer and Garcia have all arranged to repay/return the retroactive monies they’d received. Murdock, for reasons I’m sure only he knows, has decided to keep the money.

[Ed. Note 02/18 – After this blog broke, I received a call suggesting that Murdock may have finally succumbed to public pressure and made arrangements to pay the the city back at $100 bucks a month for 36 months. I hope that’s true. What perfect timing, to retire the debt synchronous with the end of the only term he’ll have on Council.]

So, what have we learned and where do we go from here?

Frankly, we’re stuck with a lot more questions than answers. We still don’t know what was legal and what wasn’t, what was ethical and what wasn’t.

Red DiceWas failure to properly and completely disclose all fiscal impact an inadvertent error of omission in the staff report? When the error was discovered, who discovered it and why were (allegedly) only three of the five council members informed?

Was Council’s response to the matter truly in the interest of the people they serve and did it demonstrate their desire to run an open, above board and efficient city government?

Since their flex benefit is no longer tied to employees or executive staff, should it be folded into the periodic review of their stipend and be subject to the limitations in place? Of course this would eliminate the perpetual, “We make less than minimum wage.” response when asked, “How much does a city council member get paid anyway?”

I’m still waiting for the Council review and discussion of the “Goldenrod” document and Code of Ethics that has them so hamstrung they can hardly conduct business without the city manager’s blessing. Please guys, have the discussion downstairs and let the people participate.

(Note: All resolutions discussed are available for review on the city’s website. If you need help navigating the records, call the City Clerk’s Office at (714) 990-7756)

10 thoughts on “The jury is still out – Part Two

  1. Rick, just curious… when did council increase their flex benefits by $321.00 from $729.00 to $1050.00? Which councilmen approved and who disapproved? Did the DA give you an ETA for their response? Predicated on the DA response, CCman Murdock has placed himself into a position for potential prosecution I would think. We need to all monitor this over the next few months.

    • Keith, many good questions. Because so many of Council’s “actions” get buried in Consent Items, it can be difficult to dig up all the details. This problem is compounded by the use of “action minutes” — a stripped down version that may capture some of the meeting highlights but at the loss of any context. All that to say, I don’t know when they gave themselves the other $321 or who did it… but I’m looking.

      The OCDA’s office is apparently pretty slammed at the moment, suffering the same budget and manpower limitations as most public agencies. While I do believe they will ultimately review the matter, it’s impossible to guess when and to what extent. It may come down to voters being the jury and deciding this case with their ballots in November.

      As I said, at this juncture everything is still speculative but well worth closer investigation. I’m not sure what would separate Murdock from the flock if there are legal issues, but if you’re referring to his refusal to pay back the retroactive bonus, we may have to chalk that up to just really bad form.

  2. Sounds like this lack of transparency is not a new problem. “Back in late 1990, Council (Blamer, Isles, Leyton, Wedin and Nelson) decided that, in addition to their modest monthly stipend, they deserved to also receive medical, dental and life insurance benefits as well.” There’s your first decision that needed to be made in a public meeting.

    And the “accidental” raise to $1600. Really? They must be smoking some great stuff in those council meetings.

    • Susan, sorry but I had to chuckle when I read that. I suppose we’ll never really know what goes on in those closed door sessions.

      Yes, the roots of this problem go back many years, over two decades. It will be interesting to see how all of this ultimately shakes out. There are so many positive things that could emerge from this fiasco.

    • Yeah, Mike, I wonder if there is actually a community free from this sort of stuff. We’re hoping to see a dynasty buster emerge and run this year, someone without an endless personal agenda.

  3. The abuse of Public Trust shouldn’t be tolerated at any level. Even though this Flex Benefit program has been going on for many years, I can’t believe that this practice matches the perception that most citizens have of city council compensation. To most, a benefit such as this is reserved for full time employees and not for part-time city council members.

    I do have empathy for those who participate on city councils. I participated for six years on a Municipal Utility Board and for two years was Chairperson in a small town in Iowa. I do believe that most members of city boards are under-compensated, however, everything has to be transparent and within normal boundaries of compensation.

    • It has been a longstanding abuse of public trust Dennis, I agree. As I posted elsewhere, even the most “busy” council member puts in fewer hours each month than my favorite Starbucks baristas. I’m beginning to chalk this behavior up more to ignorance than evil intentions. I’m reminded of Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

      Like you, I put in over six years volunteering on commissions and committees… all unpaid. Of course mine were appointed positions.

      I don’t begrudge elected officials a reasonable stipend, but when they dip into the public treasury to benefit only themselves or line their own pockets at a time when there are so many Brea homes in distress and Brea families struggling to put food on the table, the short hair on the back of my neck stands up.

      There is a “sunshine ordinance” that qualified to be on the ballot in November that would force a little more transparency. I hope voters pay attention, really understand it is in their best interest to vote for it and that they do so in large numbers. The handful of locals who have controlled the Brea political scene for decades will be doing all they can to make it fail.

  4. This has a familiar ring to it. In Rancho Santa Margarita there have been recent complaints about part-time city council members receiving health benefits. During the last city council meeting, instead of allowing residents to vote on whether part-time public servants (who also hold full-time jobs) should receive what are effectively full-time health benefits, the council punted and tabled the motion.

    • Mitch… what a familiar ring that has to it. The motion is most likely to resurface in a study session and be resolved, not in the residents favor, out of the full view of the public. I like what the City of Orange did, eliminate ALL compensation and benefits for elected officials. It will be interesting to see how that may change the profile of those choosing to run for office. Thanks for chiming in, you’re comments are always spot on and quite welcome!

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