Determined to take a closer look, the San Diego City Council on Tuesday put on hold a proposal to give embattled Housing Commission Executive Director Ben Montijo and his top assistants raises as high as 6.5%.
The proposal would boost Montijo's salary to $84,500--a raise of $5,000, or 6.3%.
It would also give Montijo's deputy directors raises of up to 6.5%. The new annual pay would range from $51,695 for Barry Collins, in charge of housing financing, to $59,209 for Cathy Lexin, who oversees the Section 8 program and office operations for the agency.
Montijo and his staff have argued that the raises are deserved, despite the rash of news stories about how the agency has used public money to buy a new headquarters, decorate and equip Montijo's office, and purchase a weight machine for agency employees.
Those allegations created enough public pressure last year that City Council members, citing a lack of public confidence, ousted a majority of the housing commission's board and appointed themselves in their place.
To buttress the request for raises, commission staff members provided figures to the council showing Montijo being paid less than four other city directors, although their departments have smaller budgets than the housing agency's $42.7 million.
Asked by reporters Tuesday if the raises would be impolitic in light of the bad press, Montijo said it wouldn't be fair to veto the raises just because "someone is mudslinging."
Commission spokesman Ken Guyer added: "Our attitude here is, we've done nothing wrong and we've done a damn good job. . . . Ben deserves a raise. The administrative staff deserves a raise."
But council members on Tuesday weren't in a generous mood, especially since it was the first time they had seen the proposal. And since Mayor Maureen O'Connor and Councilwoman Judy McCarty were absent, the council voted to put off a decision until next month.
Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer said after the meeting that she wants more information from the Housing Commission staff before she makes up her mind on the proposed raises.
"We have heard so many allegations and read so much material criticizing the housing commission, so now we're curious and we want to make sure we don't make a mistake," she said.
The council, however, went along with part of a housing commission plan to give 10% raises to seven employees in the agency's Section 8 division, which handles federal housing subsidies for low-income people. Montijo asked for the raises to compensate the employees for increased workloads.