Board, Alarmed At Salary Reduction Measure K, Offers Ersatz Reform Measure J

Measure K on this year’s ballot in San Bernardino County would substantially reduce the pay of the county’s highest ranking government officials. The campaign for the initiative’s passage is an effort to resurrect an earlier reform measure that was passed by the voters eight years ago but which was never put into place because the politicians it applied to – the members of the county board of supervisors – were able to maneuver their way around it. In a replay of what occurred previously, the supervisors are again offering voters an alternative measure which they hope will sidestep the pay reduction element of the measure reformists say is at that heart of the movement to revise local government.
In 2012, government reform advocate Kiernan “Red” Brennan and his associates gathered the signatures of 73,672 county voters to qualify a countywide ballot initiative intended to bring the remuneration of the county government’s ultimate decision-makers into line with the residents they govern and discourage career politicians fixated on money and thereby influenced by political donations from monopolizing the positions on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.
Brennan’s and Steinman’s initiative, designated as Measure R on the November 2012 ballot, called for downscaling the five individual San Bernardino County supervisors’ then-yearly $151,971 salaries and $67,500 in benefits to $50,000 in salary and $10,000 in benefits annually, a drop in total compensation from $219,471 per year to $60,000.
The members of the board of supervisors, alarmed at the prospect that they would be subject to seeing their pay reduced by more than two thirds but simultaneously recognizing that the public’s appetite for reform was intense, used their authority as government officials to place what they said was a “substitute reform” initiative onto the ballot. That initiative, Measure Q, called for  instituting reform by reducing the supervisors’ individual  salaries by $5,269 to $146,702.per year, while allowing their annual benefits then valued at $67,500 to remain in place. Because of their status as supervisors, they did not need to gather any signatures to put the Measure Q reform initiative reducing their total annual compensation to $214,202 on the ballot.
Adopting the Measure R advocates’ calls for reform, the supervisors and their supporters, as the proponents of Measure Q, did not in any overt fashion campaign against Measure R, but rather expounded in generic terms what they represented as Measure Q’s “sensible” and “moderate” approach for achieving salary reduction for the supervisors.
In the November 2012 election, Measure R passed by a convincing 64.25 percent to 35.75 percent, with 326,939 voters in favor of it and 181,907 opposed. Measure Q passed as well, by a 67.28 percent to 32.72 percent margin, 344,226 votes in support to 157,369 against it. Because Measure Q garnered more votes than Measure R, the former went into effect rather than the latter. Instead of the supervisors seeing their $219,471 per year total compensation packages reduced to $60,000, they were instead cut back to $214,202.
Brennan died in 2013. Those involved with him in his government reform efforts founded the Red Brennan Group shortly thereafter, dedicating it to reducing the depth, breadth and cost of county government while aiming at improving its efficiency.
For many in the Red Brennan Group, there was lingering resentment over the manner in which the board of supervisors in 2012 had diverted what they considered to be a legitimate reform effort that was aimed at breaking the hold that money has on politics and elected officials.
In 2017, the Red Brennan Group undertook petition drives to qualify two countywide initiatives, one aimed at reducing members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to part time status and imposing on that panel’s members a commensurate reduction in pay, and another more comprehensive measure dubbed the “Leadership Accountability Initiative.”
The second measure called for reversing the county’s 2010 move which changed the title and authority of the county chief administrative officer to the county chief executive officer, which had also conferred on the holder of the post higher pay. In addition to eliminating the chief executive officer post and reestablishing the county administrator position, the Leadership Accountability Initiative proposal called for pegging the compensation of elected officials – supervisors, sheriff, district attorney, treasurer/auditor/controller and assessor – to a multiple of the median family income in the region, and eliminated increased accrual of retirement benefits by elected officials. The proposed initiative further sought to restrict bloat within the county’s governmental structure by placing a per capita limit on the number of county employees. It also required the supervisors to use every legal means available to ensure San Bernardino County government employee pay and benefits were equal to private industry pay and benefits within its jurisdiction.
After the initiative proposals were submitted in 2017 to the county’s stable of in-house lawyers, known as the office of county counsel, the county sued the initiatives’ proponents, claiming the initiatives violated the California Constitution, the current legal authority of the supervisors, and the single subject rule for initiatives. In its lawsuit, the county contended it therefore should not be required to complete its ministerial duty of providing a ballot title and summary for the initiative proposals.
At that point, the Red Brennan Group postponed its efforts, consulting with legal authorities before proceeding. Following that legal guidance and a delay of nearly two years, the group resumed its efforts, and began circulating a petition last year to force a referendum on a measure to reduce the total compensation of each of the members of the board of supervisors to $5,000 per month. The group gathered 75,132 signatures, which were affixed to copies of the petition. Those documents, consisting of 10,121 pages, were handed over to the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office on March 20.
According to Registrar of Voters Bob Page, a “3% random sample,” of the signatures, consisting of 2,255, were examined. Of those, 1,840 were found to be the valid signatures of registered county voters and 415 were what Page deemed “insufficient.” He found among the valid signatures one duplicate. Thus, he projected, were the full 75,132 signatures to be examined, 60,228 would be determined to be valid. The three percent sampling standard can be used to certify an initiative petition drive, Page indicated, if the sampling projection shows that more than 110 percent of the required number of voter signatures have been attained. The 60,228 signatures, after adjustments, was deemed equal to 112.1 percent of the 53,725 signatures needed to qualify a countywide initiative. “Therefore,” Page said, “the petition has been signed by the requisite number of qualified electors needed and based thereon is deemed sufficient.”
The language of the Red Brennan Group’s initiative states: “The total compensation of each member of the board of supervisors shall be five thousand dollars ($5,000.00) per month, which amount shall include the actual cost to the county of all benefits of whatever kind or nature including but not limited to salary, allowances, credit cards, health insurance, life insurance, leave, retirement, memberships, portable communications devices, and vehicle allowances. This compensation shall be in full compensation for all services by the respective member of the board of supervisors.”
Furthermore, the initiative, if passed, would limit board members from serving more than six years on the board altogether, allowing them one elected term of four years, while permitting them to also serve an additional half term of up to two years if the officeholder is appointed or elected to the unexpired term of another officeholder who left office.
At the behest of the board of supervisors, the county’s top-ranking personnel, including then-County Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride, County Chief Operating Officer Leonard Hernandez and County Counsel Michelle Blakemore and their staffs, cast about to find some administrative flaw or legal fault in the process that the Red Brennan Group pursued in qualifying the measure for the November election to justify disqualifying the measure from appearing on the ballot. Similarly, county staff sought to summon up sufficient facts to support a determination that the measure might adversely impact the county’s operations or have a fiscal impact on the county which could be used as a pretext to prevent the voters from considering it.
While the board of supervisors initially declined to certify it for the ballot at its April and May meetings, during which time county staff arduously sought but could not find legally adequate grounds to keep it off the ballot, at the board’s June 9 meeting, its members somewhat reluctantly voted to fully certify the petitions and call for the measure to be put on the November 3 ballot. Then, taking a leaf out of the previous board’s book, the board, again on the basis of its own authority and without having to obtain signatures of the county’s voters as had been required of the Red Brennan Group, after coming to a determination that the county’s existing charter is antiquated and in need of a redraft, placed a measure aimed at county charter reform measure on the ballot, doing so at the last possible moment, at the July 13 board meeting, just before the county registrar of voters office’s deadline for the submission of items to be placed onto the ballot. Though there had been scant discussion of charter changes previously and no expression of a public consensus on what elements of the charter should be redressed, the office of county counsel virtually overnight delivered the language for the charter reform initiative. Of tremendous importance, the board said, was modernizing the charter to eliminate what is now considered outdated and genderist language, such as the charter’s reference to the board’s designated leader as “chairman” and what “his” duties consist of. Further, since the previous charter does not directly address the compensation of supervisors, their level of pay was deemed an important issue for the redraft. There was no public discussion of an appropriate remuneration level. Rather, the office of county counsel, working from the premise that the supervisors current salary of $163,000, further/add-on pay of roughly $17,000 and benefits of $77,000 for a total annual compensation of $257,000 is what the supervisors deserve, hit upon setting the supervisors’ salaries at 80 percent of the salary of a Superior Court judge and benefits equal to county department heads. In this way, if the charter reform measure is passed and put into effect, the supervisors would stand to make $260,000 to $290,000 per year in total annual compensation, depending upon the amount of further/add-on pay they are provided with.
The supervisors directed the county registrar of voters to put the charter reform measure on the ballot.
Curiously, just as was the case in 2012 when the county’s alternative reform measure was given the designation of Measure Q, placing it on a higher position on the ballot than Red Brennan’s Measure R despite the consideration that Brennan’s initiative was submitted first, this year the registrar of voters designated the county board of supervisors’ petition Measure J, placing it above the Red Brennan Group’s Measure K.
Analysis of voter behavior demonstrates that when casting their ballots with regard to competing candidates or initiatives, voters statistically favor the candidate or measure higher up on the ballot.
As was the case eight years ago, whichever of the measures gets the most votes will go into effect with regard to any conflicts the measures involve, such as that pertaining to the supervisors’ pay level.
One of the reasons the Red Brennan Group is seeking the reduction of the supervisors pay is the belief that at their inflated salary and benefit level, the supervisors have fallen out of touch with the vast majority of constituents they represent. In 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the median household income in San Bernardino County was $63,857. That average includes situations in which there is a single earner in a family as well as two or more earners in a given household.
In reaction to the Red Brennan Group qualifying Measure K for the ballot, after initially offering views that $60,000 was too little remuneration for the post they hold, the current supervisors with the exception of Josie Gonzales have pretty much avoided weighing in on it, preferring to address its alternative, Measure J, which they have praised as important to bringing the county into the 21st Century in accordance with modern principles of governance. They have avoided getting into a polemic with regard to their salaries and benefits, as their salaries run at well over three times what the average person in San Bernardino earns and their benefits are four times as generous than the average worker in the county.
In contrast to Measure K generally limiting supervisors to a single elected term with the allowance that someone could serve an additional two years in a circumstance in which he or she had been appointed to finish the remainder of another elected supervisor’s term, Measure J keeps the current term limit policy set with the passage of Measure P in 2006 of allowing a single individual to serve three four-year terms as supervisor. It does eliminate a current loophole in that regard. Presently, a politician could serve as supervisor for up to three terms in one district, then relocate to another district and serve up to three terms there, and so on. Measure J will limit an individual to three terms as supervisor from any and all districts.
As it stands, supervisors Josie Gonzales and Robert Lovingood are not seeking reelection this year – Gonzales because as Fifth District supervisor she is termed out under the Measure P restriction and Lovingood because he has elected to retire after two terms as First District supervisor. As such, it does not appear that Measure K, if it passes, will impact them at all personally. Similarly, Supervisor Janice Rutherford, first elected in 2010, reelected in 2014 and reelected in 2018, would not be subject to Measure K’s passage. She is termed out after her current term, and Measure K, if it passes, is not applicable to her pay in relation to the term she was elected to prior to the measure going into effect. Supervisor Dawn Rowe, appointed in 2018 to complete the term of former Third District Supervisor James Ramos after he was elected to the Assembly and elected in this year’s March 3 primary election in her own right to the term that will run from December of this year until December 2024, will not see her pay or benefits impacted by Measure K if it passes for four more years. Nor will the term limit aspect of Measure K prevent her from seeking reelection in 2024. If Measure K passes and she seeks reelection in 2024 and is successful, however, her remuneration and benefits will be curtailed to $60,000 for the four years thereafter, and she would not be eligible to run for supervisor in the Third District in 2028. Paul Cook, who was elected in March to replace Lovingood as First District supervisor, will, if Measure K passes, start at a salary of at least $163,000 per year when he is sworn in this coming December and be provided with benefits of roughly $77,000 for a minimum total annual compensation of $240,000 without counting any further/add-on pay he might receive. He will be entitled to that for all four years of the term he was elected to in March. Under the provisions of Measure K, he will be eligible to run again in 2024, at which point he will have eclipsed his 80th birthday, if he in fact chooses to do so, but will see his salary reduced to $50,000 per year and his benefits dropped to $10,000 annually if he is reelected. He will then be termed out in 2028, and will not be able to seek reelection. Supervisor Curt Hagman, who is currently the chairman of the board of supervisors, was first elected supervisor in 2014. He was reelected in 2018 and will be at liberty to stand for reelection in 2022, even if Measure K passes this year. He will remain at his current salary of approximately $267,000 to $270,00 for the next two years. If he indeed seeks reelection and is successful in 2022, under the terms of Measure K his combined salary and benefits will be reduced to $60,000 over the next four years. Whether or not Measure K passes or fails, he will be termed out of office in 2026. Currently, Rialto Councilman Joe Baca Jr. and Fontana Councilman Jesse Armendarez are in a run-off in the November 3 election to determine who will succeed Gonzales as Fifth District supervisor. The winner will be entitled to total annual compensation ranging from $240,000 to $290,000, contingent upon how much supplemental/add-on pay he receives on an annual basis. He will then be eligible to seek reelection in 2024, and receive a total annual compensation of $60,000 per year for the following four years if he is victorious. Thereafter, he will be termed out of office.
Supervisor Gonzales, who will be departing as supervisor later this year after 16 years in that capacity, decried the spirit of Measure K and the impact it will have if it passes. Gonzales does not share the perspective of the Red Brennan Group and its supporters, who hold that the supervisors are overpaid and out of step with the constituents they were elected to serve. On July 13, when she and her board colleagues voted to put the charter reform initiative now designated as Measure J on the ballot to thwart the Red Brennan Group’s supervisors’ pay reduction effort now designated as Measure K, Gonzales chided the measure’s sponsors, saying, “I am appalled… at the cheapness, at the crass way, the lack of respect that this office is being treated by the group that is behind this issue. This is wrong. If you do not like your electeds, if you don’t like your governmental representatives, I’ve said it once and I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again, then vote them out of office.”
Gonzales continue, “I would welcome anyone who would like to come and join me and shadow me for a day to demonstrate the depth, the intensity, the great responsibility that this job brings,” Gonzales said. “It’s not just a fancy title. It is an extremely difficult job that challenges the very character, the integrity, the will to serve to the max.”
At that same meeting, however, Natalie Zuk, the spokeswoman for the Red Brennan Group, sought to remind Gonzales and the other members of the board that the effort to limit the supervisors’ pay was not an isolated one being waged by petty and small-minded people who begrudge the board the money it is being paid. Rather she said, the principles of proportionality and fair and compassionate representation were at stake.
“Over 70,000 county voters signed a petition setting elected supervisor pay roughly equal to what normal county households earn,” Zuk said. “This small government initiative also sets term limits at one four-year term of service. A one-term supervisor compensated the same as most households in the county will have different incentives to govern. This approach will allow elected representatives freedom to exercise courage to restrain government’s ever-expanding appetite for the citizens’ tax dollars.”
In the argument in favor of Measure J contained in the sample ballot sent to all San Bernardino County voters, it is stated, “San Bernardino County’s charter – the laws that govern our community – was written more than 100 years ago. It’s time to modernize our charter. Measure J will: remove sexist language; close political loopholes; put a stop to future governors meddling in local matters; and increase transparency and accountability in our local government.”
The rebuttal to the argument in favor of Measure J contained in the sample ballot sent to all San Bernardino County voters states, “The county supervisors, now in a panic, want you to believe their charter ‘reform’ is a modern update expanding transparency and creating good governance. Actually, the charter ‘reform’ is an attempt to maintain their ridiculously high compensation.”
In the argument in favor of Measure K contained in the sample ballot sent to all San Bernardino County voters, it is stated that Measure K will impose stricter term limits and “reduce compensation for county supervisors and make supervisors accountable to you. Term limits and reduced salaries will finally attract representatives interested in public service and committed to following the will of the people. Obligated to financial backers for reelection, the board of supervisors has chosen to ignore voters and their rights. They imposed new taxes, specifically property taxes, without your consent. While approving ever-increasing fees, fines and taxes on the public, the supervisors collect a salary and benefits package of over $250,000 annually – nearly six-times the median income of San Bernardino working families. This initiative provides the same income that a working family receives. With such current lucrative compensation, it’s no wonder supervisors pander to special interest groups who fund their reelections, like property developers and employee unions. A single four-year term will help shut out these outside interests and focus our leaders on doing what’s best for us all.”
In the rebuttal to the argument in favor of Measure K contained in the sample ballot sent to all San Bernardino County voters, the measure’s opponents dwelt nearly as much on what Measure K will not do as they focused on what it will do.
“Despite the claims made by proponents of Measure K, this initiative doesn’t solve any of the purported ‘systemic’ problems mentioned in their argument,” the rebuttal states. “Measure K doesn’t prevent the board of supervisors from imposing new property taxes without voter consent. Measure K doesn’t limit the amount of money that candidates for county supervisor can accept from lobbyists and special interests. Measure K doesn’t reduce the authority granted to the non-elected county chief executive officer position. Measure K doesn’t eliminate multi-million dollar legal settlements. Paying county supervisors what effectively amounts to minimum wage will encourage them to accept more money from lobbyists and special interests, not less. This increases corruption and a return to pay-for-play politics.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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