The top two Democratic candidates for a state Senate seat in the San Fernando Valley have both benefited from little-known government perks and plum political appointments.
But now the two longtime public officials are accusing each other of overindulging in the spoils of local government.
The campaign pits City Councilman Richard Alarcon against former Assemblyman Richard Katz, two savvy political veterans who are engaged in the Valley's most competitive and antagonistic race of the year.
The latest skirmish has Katz and Alarcon exchanging barbs over the perquisites of their public offices. Each sees scandal in the benefits enjoyed by the other.
"In each case, it's the pot calling the kettle black," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.
Katz has criticized Alarcon for receiving about $17,000 in fees during the past three years--above his $98,000 annual council salary--for work with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"I think it's more than overindulgence," Katz said. "It's double-dipping and worse. If you are a full-time City Council member and you represent the city on the AQMD, why do you get paid again?"
Alarcon says his extra income is well deserved. But he fires back, slamming Katz for accepting an annual salary of $78,000 for a politically appointed seat he holds on the California Medical Assistance Commission, which meets twice a month.
"How can you compare taking $3,000 a meeting to me taking $100 a meeting?" Alarcon asks.
Alarcon was elected to the AQMD by a panel of local officials last August. He is still a member of its governing board. In 1995, he was appointed to the MTA by Mayor Richard Riordan, an Alarcon ally. He served until last year.
Katz was appointed to the Medical Assistance Commission by political ally and former Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) after he was forced out of office by term limits. The panel awards Medi-Cal contracts.
Alarcon said Katz's charges are merely an attempt to divert attention from Katz's own highly paid post.
"It's clearly a ruse," Alarcon said. "He must be held accountable for taking $78,000 for attending 24 meetings a year."
The commission has also paid for Katz's travel expenses to and from the meetings in Sacramento that commission officials say total about $200 a day.
Government-watchdog groups, including the People's Advocate in Sacramento, said both candidates should be forced to cut back.
Vosburgh of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. said his group wants state and local officials to reconsider the salaries for politically appointed positions and per-diem fees paid to government officials for attending meetings.
"We certainly feel that pay should have some relationship to the amount of work being done," Vosburgh said.
Public officials--such as members of the county Board of Supervisors, City Council members and mayors--receive extra pay for serving on sanitation boards, regional government panels and transit agencies. Most panels impose a limit on how much members can receive.
Members of the MTA board get a maximum of $7,200 a year for attending transportation meetings, at a rate of $150 per meeting. Members of the AQMD board are limited to $12,000 a year, at a rate of $100 per meeting. In 1996, Alarcon earned $4,950 from attending MTA meetings, according to expense records. In the following year, he earned $5,700, the records show.
So far this year, the AQMD has paid Alarcon $4,200 for attending meetings, according to AQMD expense reports.
Katz argues that some of Alarcon's fees are questionable because the meetings took place in his own council office and didn't require him to take much time out of his schedule.
"That is a practice that is unheard of," Katz said.
According to AQMD expense records, Alarcon has charged the AQMD for seven meetings he held at his office. AQMD officials said the agency pays for any meeting that involves the discussion of air-quality issues, regardless of location.
Alarcon defends his earnings, saying the hours he has spent meeting with MTA or AQMD officials are hours taken away from his personal life.
"When I took on the position at the AQMD, I did not delete hours on my council job," he said. "I only added hours to my job."
Alarcon said it is "unconscionable" for Katz to take $78,000 a year to meet twice a month as a member of the California Medical Assistance Commission.
In fact, salaries for commissioners are about to jump to $99,000 a year because they are tied to the salaries of state legislators, who were just awarded a raise in March by a state compensation panel.
According to records reviewed by The Times, Katz has only missed two meetings since he was named to the board last year. The state pays commission members for travel to and from the meetings in Sacramento. Katz promised not to take the raise, which will take effect in December. He also said he has written to legislative leaders asking that the salaries of commission members no longer be tied to those of legislators.
Pay raises have played an issue in the race, with Katz accusing Alarcon of dishonesty by waiving a pay raise for City Council members in 1994, and then accepting it 13 months later.
Alarcon calls the charge baseless.
"They are trying to create an issue where there is none," he said.