The Long Beach City Council is expected to change the pay structure for most of its city commissioners to remove barriers that advocates say blocked some low-income and undocumented resents from participating in making city policy.
The roughly 30 city commissions advise the City Council on issues ranging from parking rates at city-owned marinas to what new housing projects should be approved. Council members approved a change to commission pay structure in January 2020 that ensured that all of its over 250 commissioners were compensated for the time spent in their meetings. Previously only about 70 were paid.
The change was made by requiring commissioners to be classified as city employees. However, advocates who have been pushing for Tuesday’s proposed changes say the way the policy was implemented excluded members of the community from participating and put some in ethical binds, as they wished to remain independent but were required to become city employees to serve.
“First it was ethical issues, then I uncovered equity concerns,” said former Technology and Innovation Commissioner Parisa Vinzant, who has been pushing for changes since last year.
Vinzant said she did not like the employee-employer relationship and viewed it as a potential or perceived conflict of interest, since commissioners are supposed to make objective recommendations on city policy.
But as she began to ask questions, she found that the pay structure prevented people who were undocumented from serving on commissions, and the mandatory compensation could cause issues for people who are on fixed incomes and have to remain under a certain income threshold to maintain their subsidized housing or other public benefits.
“What City Council passed as legislation completely diverged from what was implemented,” Vinzant said.
The changes the council will weigh on Tuesday would allow people to opt out of the pay structure, which gives commissioners between $50 and $200 per meeting depending on which commission they serve on.
A commissioner could serve as a volunteer instead of as an employee and not get paid, or serve as a volunteer with the option to be reimbursed for expenses. If the changes are approved, commissioners who have not started service will be able to choose to serve as a volunteer rather than employee this year, but those who have already started service would have to wait until 2024 to change their designation if they prefer to serve as a volunteer.
The exception to these changes would be for the city’s more powerful commissions, whose commissioners are considered “city officers” and will remain classified as city employees. Those include the Civil Service, Utilities, Planning and Harbor commissions. Changing those designations would require amending the city’s charter, which must be approved by voters.
In addition to making city commissions more accessible, the changes would also align the city’s rules with state law.
Senate Bill 225, which was signed into law in October 2019, months before the council’s amendments to commissioner pay, allows for undocumented people to serve on boards in commissions, putting the city’s ordinance out of step with state law for the past three years.
By requiring commissioners to be classified as employees, the city precluded undocumented people from serving on commissions because federal law does not allow the hiring of undocumented people for employment.
Under the proposed changes, commissioners could now be given the option to serve as a volunteer but be reimbursed for expenses up to $500, something allowed under federal law.
Gaby Hernandez, the executive director of Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition, said the change was overdue, and it could provide critical opportunities for undocumented or low-income people to be at the table when city policy is being crafted.
“In order to build power, people need to have access to those spaces, not only to the City Council, but to the commissions,” Hernandez said.
She said that the next steps for city commissions to ensure that translation services are available for all meetings. City Council meetings typically have Spanish translation available without an advanced notice, but commission meetings require people who want to participate to let the body know 24 hours in advance.
With the prospect of a monolingual person potentially serving on a city commission, Hernandez said the city needs to think of how translation can be not only provided for the public, but for commissioners as well.
Mayor Rex Richardson, whose office has been working with the city attorney’s office over the past few months to craft the changes, said in a statement that the current structure created barriers to civic participation.
“By updating our compensation structure to include volunteers, we open up the doors of public service to be more inclusive of our entire community,” Richardson said a statement.
Other changes that are part of the proposal include updating the required ethics training that commissioners have to complete before beginning their service and changing how commissioners can be removed from a commission.
Previously a commissioner had to be absent for three consecutive meetings without being excused, move out of the city or demonstrate incompetence, neglect of duty or be convicted of a crime “involving moral turpitude.” A majority vote of the council was required to remove a commissioner under the old rules.
Now, the mayor will be able to remove a commissioner without cause as long as two-thirds of the City Council approves.
Richardson’s communications director Malini Basu said that the change was meant to add consistency between charter commissions and other advisory bodies when it comes to accountability processes.