A divided City Council chose to postpone a decision Wednesday on how much Rancho Santa Margarita elected officials should receive in benefits.
In a 3-2 vote, councilmembers pushed back a full review of compensation for the position until August at the latest, pending the results of a proposed citywide survey.
The item, brought forward by councilman Jesse Petrilla, was originally agendized as a discussion of the possibility of either a ballot measure or an ordinance, both of which would have eliminated benefits for the five residents who comprise the city's governing body.
“I believe that our city council should consider ending benefits for our positions,” Petrilla said Wednesday.
Petrilla asked his colleagues to lead “by doing what is right and ending these benefits once and for all.”
Mayor Tony Beall said council compensation is on the median among Orange County cities, and that council members earn their keep. There hasn't been an increase to the benefits since 2007.
“When you leave the city council, you take with you the money that you have earned,” Beall said.
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According to the staff report, in addition to stipends for participating in various commissions, the elected posiiton carries with it an allowed a monthly salary of $463.50, and monthly benefits allowance of $1,378.47.
The total of benefits plus salary per year is $22,103.64. In a four-year term, salary and benefits total $88,414.56.
Councilmembers are not enrolled in calPERS, the state retirement program, but unused benefits can be rolled over into a 457 retirement fund.
Prior to the night’s discussion, councilmembers received more than 20 emails from residents on the issue; many with the sentence “Please allow us the opportunity to vote to reduce your pay in November.”
The emails were the result of online campaign by Kenney Hrabik, owner of the Dove Canyon Courtyard, who in an email, said the city council’s “pay and benefits have been hidden from RSM residents until now,” and that the benefits had cost the city about $1 million.
City Manager Steve Hayman said that it was about half that since the city incorporated on Jan. 1, 2000. Hayman, who is serving as the interim city manager while , said he took personal offense at some of the claims in the letter campaign and went to great lengths to explain council salary and where it could be found on the city's website.
Said Beall: "The letters that they (the people who emailed the city) have sent are just the fruit of that poisonous tree."
He also said that the process of compensation discussion has never been secret.
“It is scrutinized. It is openly discussed. It is posted prominently on our city’s website,” Beall said. “This information has never been hidden from the public as some have falsely told their neighbors."
Petrilla pointed out that he and Mayor Pro Tempore Steve Baric were not receiving benefits from the city. Beall asked Petrilla when he had stopped receiving those benefits.
"Three years before the end of my term," Petrilla said. "You can do the math."
According to city staff, Petrilla put in the paperwork on March 26 and will continue to receive benefits until April 1, about 15 months after taking office and at least three months short of three years before the end of his term.
Petrilla got somewhat testy in response and went on the offensive and asked if Beall thought it was right to “pad your pension, to pad your retirement with taxpayers dollars and if so why?”
Baric, who has not accepted benefits from the city since he took office, said that the council should “lead the way” in doing away with benefits for council members.
“This issue is not personal,” Baric said. “This is about principle."
However, Baric added, “No one up here is getting rich.”
After Petrilla made a motion to remove councilmember benefits by creating an ordinance similar to the one enacted by the city of Orange, councilwoman Carol Gamble made a substitute motion that the item be discussed no later than August following the completion of the city’s proposed survey of the residents' opinions.
“I will take no action on this item,” Gamble said. “I will take action on this item when I hear back from the people that I work for.”
During public comments on the item, two people spoke in favor of cutting benefits and one spoke against.
Beall, Gamble and Jerry Holloway voted in favor of the substitute motion. Baric and Petrilla voted against.
Petrilla, who brought the issue forward, declined to talk with Patch after the vote.
• During public comments, Rancho Santa Margarita resident Chris McLaughlin asked for an update on the Orange County District Attorney’s investigation into the officer .
McLaughlin asked questions including how many shots were fired and the name of the officer in involved.
“Some of that information might well be disclosed quite soon,” said Lt. Brian Schmutz, chief of police services for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Schmutz said that the investigation could take months.
“We will release as soon as we possibly can,” Schmutz said of the information flow that is controlled by the D.A.'s office.
Beall said he appreciated McLaughlin’s comments and that he wanted residents to know that the city council is not privy to the information either.
“It’s not as though we're waiting for the green light so we can tell you,” Beall said. “We don‘t know that information either."
• As part of the city’s student recognition program, officials honored Mission Hills Christian School students Faith Fong and Colin Eastman and Serra Catholic School students Aiden Brotman and Christeen Kerolos.
• The council also recognized Girl Scouts of Orange County troop Rancho Trabuco 2 to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the girl scouts.
The troop also led the council in the Pledge of Allegiance.