Hawthorne residents have a big decision to make about the future of their city when they turn in their ballots for the Nov. 8 election.
They will decide the fate of Measure I, a ballot initiative that would change Hawthorne from a general law city to a charter city — a proposal that has councilmembers in disagreement.
Proponents argue Hawthorne would benefit from the increased local control of being a charter city. Opponents say they also support the idea of a charter — but are not OK with the significant councilmember salary hikes written into it.
Hawthorne’s councilmembers currently have an annual salary of $7,200 for the part-time job, which would jump to $75,700 if Measure I passes – a 951% increase. The council already voted in January to increase its members’ annual salaries to $14,400 starting in 2023, which City Attorney Robert Kim said is the maximum allowable increase as a general law city.
General law cities are governed by the California Constitution, while charter cities have the power to adopt their own laws regarding municipal affairs. This includes aspects of zoning and land use, processes for local elections and commission appointments, issuing public works contracts, imposing local taxes, and staff salaries.
Of the state’s 482 cities, around 121 have a charter, according to data from the League of California Cities. In LA County, it has not been a common practice for cities to adopt a charter over the last 20 years, a spokesperson for the county registrar’s office said.
Hawthorne’s neighbor to southeast neighbor, Carson, did, however, recently adopt one through a 2018 ballot measure. That charter also included significant annual salary hikes for councilmembers – from $20,000 to around $77,000.
The argument in favor of the Hawthorne’s Measure I was authored by Councilman David Patterson and Councilwoman Angie Reyes English and says that the charter would give the city more control over housing standards, development standards and special economic zones. The argument does not mention the salary increases.
A charter would also protect Hawthorne’s ability to prosecute its own misdemeanors, which it currently has permission to do at the discretion of the LA County District Attorney’s Office. Adopting a charter would allow Hawthorne to join a lawsuit against state Senate Bill 9, a controversial law that allows for more housing in single-family zoned neighborhoods.
Councilman Alex Monteiro said he opposes the charter because of the salary increases, but would vote for it if they were removed. He supports the council having more control over land use and zoning laws, Monteiro said. He, alongside Councilwoman Olivia Valentine, authored the argument against the measure.
“As a city right now we only have about $70 million in reserves,” Monteiro said in a recent interview. “Let’s say if the economy went bad, if a recession started, if we are hit with some major disaster, we only have money to operate for one year and then the city will go bankrupt. That is why I am asking people to vote no on the charter.”
The higher salaries, the opposition argument says, would also hurt Hawthorne’s financial stability in the long-term by spiking its pension liabilities. High pension payments have been a key factor in the financial woes experienced by the nearby cities of Inglewood and Torrance.
Monteiro, for his part, said the new pay rate would be out of step with a part-time job and that some councilmembers do little city work other than showing up to meetings twice a month.
Patterson, though, does not think the city is in a bad financial position or that the pay is excessive.
“Both of those statements are categorically wrong,” he said.
There is money available in the general fund, Patterson said, because Hawthorne cut down on city contracts and received federal COVID-19 relief funds, which, he added, more than covers the pay bumps. In the long term, Patterson said, he believes that revenue from the 5% tax on cannabis sales, which voters passed in November 2020, will provide a sustainable source of funding for the increases.
The argument against the measure paints a less sunny picture of Hawthorne’s financial future.
“The City only recently emerged from a dire fiscal emergency that nearly bankrupted the City. The residents voted to approve a sales tax increase a few years ago to stabilize the City’s budget woes,” the argument says. “The City’s budget is still fragile, so this unjustified and undeserved raise makes no sense, especially when the economy is heading into a recession, revenue is decreasing, and the fiscal future appears even more uncertain.”
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But another benefit of the pay raise, Patterson said, is that it opens the option of running for council to more of Hawthorne’s residents and not just those with time and money at their disposal.
“A person shouldn’t have to be in a specific category of wealth or employment to be able to afford to add value to the community,” he said. “I think it (the pay increase) is going to bring a lot more great options to the table for people to choose from to represent them.”
A good council member, Patterson said, will dedicate at least 20 hours a week to the position. This is still half of what is considered a full-time job in the California Labor Code.
Ultimately, residents will decide, when they submit their ballots, whether the pay bump is justified — and if they want the other lawmaking benefits of a charter city.