He was never mentioned by name, but Matt Hall took quite a beating during Monday's San Diego City Council meeting. Hall's the Union-Tribune reporter responsible for a story last week—about a short-lived raise in pay for council members—that apparently provoked an avalanche of angry cards, letters, e-mails and calls to council offices.Councilmembers Jim Madaffer and Ben Hueso were the harshest in their critique of Hall's work. “It was probably, by far, one of the most distorted, twisted, biased pieces of journalism I'd ever read,” Madaffer snarled, “and it frankly violated every principle of journalism, from truthfulness and accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability….” Ouch.
Hall reported that the council last Tuesday gave “itself” a 24-percent raise—failing to explicitly say that four current members would not get the raise—and juxtaposed it with mentions of cuts to city services and no raises for members of three city unions. The story didn't say that the approved raise was actually an 11-percent bump and that the 24-percent figure included an already-existing $9,600 car allowance, nor did it say that the increased cost would be absorbed within the council members' individual office budgets. (It should be noted that it was Hall who several weeks ago produced an excellent investigative story on possible legal problems with the car allowance.)
The point of view of the salary story was obvious: The City Council is out of touch, boosting its own pay while cutting public pool hours and denying blue-collar city workers even a modest raise. Sloppy reporting notwithstanding, that's a reasonable observation. After all, Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer, Donna Frye and Brian Maienschein voted against the raise, and at least two of them cited just that argument. Saying it's not the right time to raise politicians' salaries is an absolutely defensible position.
But raising the pay is equally defensible. Councilmembers Madaffer, Hueso, Tony Young, Toni Atkins and Scott Peters voted yes (in Peters' case only after the effective date was moved to a month after he leaves office) largely because the current $84,986 (including the car allowance) is relatively low considering the significance of the job, the hours worked and the cost of living in San Diego. Furthermore, if our calculations are correct, the total cost of the raise would have been $67,992. That represents .00614 percent of the proposed general-fund budget for the next fiscal year. It's really not something to get all that lathered up about, unless you're talking politics and principle rather than tax dollars.
Well, people indeed became lathered. So, Hueso and Peters changed their mind and refused to vote to override a veto of the raise by Mayor Jerry Sanders. Not only did the council not approve the raise; it nearly eliminated the car allowance, which would have effectively reduced the members' take-home pay. That proposal fell one vote short.
The whole thing unnecessarily became a farce, thanks largely to Hueso and Peters, who were either timid, indecisive or just not thinking.
In Peters' case, at least he's somewhat contrite about having made the mistake of not considering the raise in the context of service cuts and wage freezes. It just seems hard to believe that Peters, a highly intelligent man and a pretty shrewd political operator, forgot that many workers wouldn't be getting raises. “Apparently,” he said to CityBeat with a grin, “I'm not always as smart as people think I am.”
Our take is that he truly believed that the raise was the right thing to do but was caught off guard by the backlash, and he decided it was best for his campaign for city attorney to change his vote and say he'd made a boo-boo. At least that makes political sense.
Our real problem is with Hueso, who makes no sense on a regular basis. In an eight-minute “rant” (his word) Monday, Hueso was all over the map, seemingly taking both sides of the debate and contradicting himself about who he thinks should run for City Council.
“Some unions have gone four years, five years without a salary increase,” Hueso blathered, “and I just have a personal problem with that and punishing our city employees for something that they're not guilty of.”
Oh really? Where were those warm thoughts about the workers when he voted yes just six days earlier?
Hueso went on to complain about how grossly underpaid council members are, just has he'd done a week before. He said “shoe salesmen,” “car salesmen” and “teachers” should be able to run for office “without fear of being bankrupted” and then said that the pay needs to be high enough to attract former state legislators who know what they're doing. “We need well-qualified, very, very experienced council members serving on the council,” he declared.First of all, Mr. Hueso, who is it that you want on the City Council? Shoe salesmen or politicians fresh out of Sacramento? And “bankrupted”? On $85,000? Is that really what you wanted to say when the median household income in San Diego is $65,000?
Again, either position is defensible—but Ben Hueso? The man is a walking, talking argument against a council salary hike.
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