Office Holder Account Limits Increased by City Council After Contentious Debate

After some confusion, several audibles and some flared tempers, City Council voted on a motion to approve the increase of the limits on office holder accounts and contributions to those accounts city-wide. However, the vote was far from unanimous.

The move will triple the limit on all city office holder accounts, moving the limit on council members' office holder accounts from $10,000 to $30,000, and on city-wide officials' accounts from $25,000 to $75,000, while also increasing the limits on contributions to those accounts from $500 to $750 for council members and $500 to $1,000 for city-wide officials. A request for a report regarding an annual consumer price index (CPI) adjustment was the only caveat added to the original motion.

The motion was approved with a 5-3 vote, with council members Suzie Price, Stacy Mungo and Al Austin opposing. Mayor Robert Garcia was absent due to his attendance of the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.

Price, who was absent for most of the council meeting Tuesday night, remained vocal about her hesitation to raise office holder account limits. Reiterating her reservations from the previous discussion of the matter before council, she said that although she trusts her colleagues, the decisions they make will affect councils in the future.

“For the very reasons and concerns I shared last week, I respect my council colleagues, and on this issue I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree,” Price said.

Price’s dissent regarding raising council member account limits to $30,000 and city wide office holder accounts to $75,000 as proposed at the January 6 meeting kicked off a string of proposed substitute motions, appeals for friendly amendments and a further substitute substitute motion that led to nearly a half hour debate on the merits of either increasing or maintaing the account limits.

Austin proposed the first substitute motion that would have set officer holder account limits at $20,000 for council members and $50,000 for the mayor and other city-wide positions, while leaving the proposed increased contribution limits untouched, a move that Price seconded. Despite stating it was a fair compromise, Austin said he was still supportive of increasing the account limits, because of the rise in the cost of living.

“I think it is necessary, it’s time,” Austin said, citing that it’s been several years since the last raise. “I mean Long Beach is a big city and we have great needs and great demands on us as city council members."

Austin added that despite his beliefs, the raises should be more in step with inflation trends.

“I don’ t think inflation has gone up that much in that period of time,” Austin said. “I don’t think anything has tripled—except maybe healthcare.”

This substitute motion was eventually shot down in a 3-5 vote. Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson remarked that the previous cuts in budget necessitate the proposed tripling of the account caps, sharing his own experiences of not being able to attend conferences because of lack of funding, or of having to reach out for private funding to put on events in the community.

“I remember when i started as chief of staff 4 years ago, we were able to have four staff people, and then that was moved down to three,” Richardson said. “Now we're looking at less staff and absolutely no supply budget in our offices. That’s a reality in our offices as we have to find outside sponsors to help sponsor community events or help provide breakfast at our community events because we don’t have the capacity in-house.”

Richardson offered a substitute substitute motion that would have raised the office holder account limits as previously proposed, while additionally allowing for the CPI adjustment, something that Richardson later took off the table, since the additional requirements of his motion would cause the process to start over again with a first reading of the motion, to be read at next week’s council meeting.

While expressing a desire to not “belabor the issue”, Price took exception with comments made by other council members that this motion had been discussed at length during committee sessions, and that they thought conversations during the week had been productive.

“When I press this button here, that’s a decision I have to live with,” Price said. “It’s on my conscience, it’s something I have to be comfortable with. If I express hesitation one week and do some more research and learn more about it, I’m not tied to what happened the week before. That’s the whole point. That’s why the system requires a first reading and a second reading."

“It is perfectly acceptable and appropriate for council members who don’t sit on that committee to question certain aspects of the findings and recommendations of that committee,” Price added. “That’s actually our job and that’s what the tax payers have elected us to do.”

First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, head of the Election Oversight Committee that originally introduced the motion, had previously explained that the figure was derived from studies of comparable cities like Anaheim and Los Angeles and the size of their respective elected officials’ office holder accounts. Referring to the nearly 50,000 residents she represents, Gonzalez stated that $30,000 was not a large sum of money and that she was going to stand firm in her support of the original motion.

“Our committee worked very hard,” Gonzalez said “We based this off of information based on adjacent cities. This isn’t just an arbitrary number we picked out of the sky.”

Ultimately, with City Attorney Charlie Parkin's help in sifting through the amendments and substitutes, the council was able to vote in favor of the original motion.

Price reiterated her previous concern, stating that raising the office holder account limits and contribution limits could open up the opportunity for fund raising to compete for the focus of the city’s elected officials. 

“Sometimes what other cities are doing is something we can learn from and grow from  and adopt in our own city,” Price said. “But sometimes we can simply say ‘We are Long Beach, we are different, we do things differently, we reject certain things that aren’t healthy in other communities.' Just because other communities are doing them, doesn’t mean they're healthy for us.”

[Editor's note: A previous version of this article had Councilwoman Stacy Mungo's first name spelled as Stacey.]

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