San Diego elected officials have gotten 5 raises since voters overhauled their pay. Here’s what they make, and how it compares
Five years after Measure L, which rewrote how their pay is determined, City Council members make nearly as much as members of Congress.
San Diego’s mayor and City Council members have gotten five pay raises in three years that have more than doubled their annual salaries — from about $75,000 to $173,000 for council members and from roughly $100,000 to $231,000 for mayor.
The pay raises happen without the council having to hold public votes — and the scrutiny that typically comes with them — thanks to a 2018 city ballot measure that aimed to boost the quality of elected officials and make their pay raises less controversial.
Before voters approved Measure L, the awkwardness and potential political costs of voting to give themselves raises had prevented San Diego council members from doing so for more than 15 years.
The measure, which was approved by more than 78 percent of city voters, pegged pay for the mayor and council members to a percentage of the salaries of Superior Court judges. And the elected officials get the raises automatically, with no public hearing or notice required.
The measure pegged council pay at 60 percent of Superior Court judge salaries starting in December 2020, rising to 75 percent in December 2022 and staying at that percentage permanently. So council salaries jumped from $139,000 to just over $173,000 this past winter.
The measure pegged the mayor’s pay to be equivalent to Superior Court judge salaries starting in December 2020.
Supporters have long hailed the measure for sharply boosting the quality of candidates running for elected office in the city, especially council seats. Now, lawyers, doctors and other professionals can run for council without taking massive pay cuts.
Among those running for office are five attorneys, a firefighter, restaurant chain owner
“The purpose was to get quality people to leave for four to eight years without taking a steep pay cut — and then return to their professions,” said Bob Ottilie, a local attorney who spearheaded the ballot measure.
The field of candidates running for council in 2020 prompted the San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board — which is separate and independent from its newsroom — to reverse its position on Measure L and declare the pay raises warranted.
When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
Ottilie said recently that he expects even better candidates in coming years.
“This was just the first cycle since Measure L, and there wasn’t a lot of time between 2018 and 2020 for people to react to the higher pay,” he said.
Ottilie stressed that the significantly higher salaries for council and mayor are costing the city relatively little money in the city’s $2 billion annual operating budget.
Total annual pay for the mayor and council members has risen from about $675,000 before Measure L to about $1.8 million now, an increase of just over $1.1 million.
Supporters say the extra money is a smart investment because of the crucial decisions council members and the mayor must make.
They must read contracts, make policies and understand proposals to make nuanced changes to city laws and codes. They also must analyze threatened and ongoing litigation — understanding when the city should settle or fight a case.
“The higher salaries enable many professionals to consider running for office a viable option,” said Laura Fink, a local political consultant.
“When you look at how pay has risen since the pandemic, it’s clear you have to have salaries that are commensurate with the quality of candidate you want to attract,” she continued. “While it doesn’t guarantee quality leadership, it helps make it happen.”
Haney Hong, chief executive of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said the higher salaries are an example of tax money being well-spent.
He also said using the salaries of Superior Court judges seems like a reasonable benchmark, but said it would be ideal for the salaries of elected officials to vary based on results.
“You wish you could tie it to performance, but that’s difficult to do,” Hong said.
Measure L also shifted pay for the city attorney, which had been set by the council, to the same pay as the mayor — 100 percent of the salary of a Superior Court judge.
Because the city attorney’s salary was already about $193,000 before the measure — nearly twice the mayor’s $100,000 salary at the time — the pay raises for city attorney since have been much smaller.
Ottilie said he’s pleased Measure L pegs the salaries to pay for Superior Court judges, as a number of other government entities also do.
“We wanted to take away the politics of it, so it had to be tied to something,” he said.
He said Superior Court judges seemed like a good choice because their salaries seemed about the right level and because they typically get modest annual pay increases based on the pay of other state workers.
Their pay hikes are based on the average salary increase across all state employees within the executive branch, which includes 21 different labor groups that bargain for new contracts separately.
Each time judges get a pay raise, the Judicial Council of California sends the city a letter from the California Department of Human Resources that includes the details needed for the city to raise pay for the mayor, council and city attorney.
Despite such cooperation from the state, the process has been clunky and somewhat difficult for the city, said chief financial officer Matt Vespi.
The main problem is that judges’ salaries are typically increased retroactively, after the average raises for other state labor groups are calculated.
That has forced San Diego to raise the pay for mayor, council and city attorney more often than once per year.
For example, in December 2020, the salary for council members rose from $75,386 to $128,300 based on the salary of Superior Court judges at that time — but then it rose again a few months later to $128,761 retroactive to that same month, after the judges got a retroactive raise in the spring.
The same thing happened in 2021 and 2022 for all three city elected positions.
San Diego isn’t the only local government agency to peg pay raises for elected officials to Superior Court judges. The county government and the city of Chula Vista use the same benchmark.
The salaries for county supervisors are 90 percent of a Superior Court judge, or just over $208,000 currently.
In Chula Vista, where the mayor’s job is full-time and council members are part-time, the mayor’s salary is 66 percent of a Superior Court judge, and council members get 40 percent. All of San Diego’s elected positions are full-time.
The higher pay for San Diego’s elected officials brings the city closer to the salaries for those positions in other large California cities.
For example, in Los Angeles, the mayor is paid nearly $298,000 as of July of last year, and council members make just over $229,000. Los Angeles County supervisors are paid just over $231,000, the same as Superior Court judges. In San Francisco, which is both a county and a city, the mayor makes roughly $357,000 and supervisors just over $156,000.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s salary is just over $224,000, members of the state Assembly and Senate are paid about $123,000 and members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives make $174,000.
Ottilie stressed that Measure L also included several ethics-oriented changes to balance the pay raises.
The measure eliminated $9,600-per-year car allowances for council members, prohibited outgoing council members and mayors from lobbying city officials for two years after leaving office and barred city elected officials from using city-controlled luxury boxes at Petco Park.