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Burnout, Low Pay Make Political 'Comers' Quit

September 25, 1988|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

Articulate, hard-working and all of 22, Alan Viterbi had the look of a rising political star when he joined the West Hollywood City Council in 1984.

There was talk of a future congressional seat for the pudgy politician with the strong base among elderly Jewish voters, or at least a spot in the Legislature.

Instead, Viterbi surprised the prognosticators last spring by chucking his political career for a partnership in a bus-shelter advertising business. At age 26, disenchanted with politics, he disengaged from public life.

5 Others Drop Out

"There's a lot of grief that comes with public office," Viterbi said. "There are the pressure groups. There are the meetings that last until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. . . . At some point you say: 'Let somebody else have the grief.' "

For six well-known Westside council members, 1988 is the year when the grief that goes along with public life seemed to outweigh the gratification.

Joining Viterbi at the City Hall exit gates were Beverly Hills City Council members Benjamin H. Stansbury Jr., Charlotte Spadaro and Donna Ellman. In Santa Monica, Mayor James P. Conn and Councilman Alan Katz are departing this fall.

Long hours, low pay and mounting pressure from special-interest groups, especially those that have rallied around the slow-growth issue, are among the main reasons cited for the moves. Outgoing officials said council duty, which used to be a part-time job handled by Chamber of Commerce types, has evolved into a full-time commitment that wreaks havoc on careers and families.

"The ability to give the city the time it requires, your profession the time it requires and your family the time they require is often an impossible task," Katz said. "There's no limit to the time you can spend on the job."

Katz, who works as chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, said Westside council members must possess unusual qualities these days. Being unemployed or having a flexible work schedule is vital, he said, since council activities require a commitment of 20 to 60 hours a week.

Financial independence is also important, since Westside-area council members earn only $50 to $400 a month, no matter how much time they spend on the job. Couch potatoes also need not apply, because officials are expected to show up at meetings and social events at night and on weekends.

And the kicker is that there's virtually no opportunity for political advancement. The council members said municipal experience does little or nothing to position a person for higher office in the competitive Westside.

"These jobs are not political springboards," Katz said. "No one has gone from the Santa Monica council to anything but retirement. (For higher office) you need a record on major issues, you need vast financial resources and you need big name recognition, and none of that comes from council service."

Despite all the negatives, Westside council races remain competitive, thanks to ego, the lure of political power and the chance to affect change. And there are still those who successfully serve multiple terms. But council members say disillusionment often sets in sooner than expected.

Conn, a Methodist minister, seriously considered retirement when his first term ended four years ago. He was persuaded to seek reelection. But as the 1988 elections approached, Conn made it clear that eight years was enough.

The mayor's primary motivation was his desire to spend more time with his 10-year-old son. But Conn said other factors came into play. His work at the Church in Ocean Park suffered as he spent up to 30 hours a week dealing with complex issues such as growth, zoning, traffic and the environment.

'Absolutely Demanding'

"No one understands how much time (this job) requires," Conn said. "Maybe in some quiet little town someplace, it is not this intense. But certainly in an urban metropolis with all the variety and spectrum of issues facing us, it's absolutely demanding on one's time and consciousness."

In addition, City Council members aren't paid full-time salaries as are legislators and congressmen, though they often work the same number of hours.

Conn said money isn't a major issue for him, since he collects a full-time minister's salary and benefits. But for others, it's a burden. In Santa Monica, where the council earns $50 a month and the mayor $150 a month, the salaries haven't changed in 40 years.

27 Cents an Hour

Voters have rejected pay raises for the council twice in the 1980s. The last measure, which would have raised council pay to $600 a month, lost by about 700 votes. Councilman Dennis Zane, whose compensation works out to about 27 cents an hour, said voters don't appreciate how much effort goes into the job.

"Either voters aren't aware that the council gets this ridiculous $50 a month or they aren't dealing with the fact the we are talking about a preposterously low amount of money," said Zane, a teacher who works part time to leave more time for the council. "They just look on it as an increase."

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