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Pico Rivera Council Rescinds City Manager's 20% Pay Raise

October 22, 2003|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Facing a possible lawsuit from the Los Angeles County district attorney and withering criticism from its constituents, the Pico Rivera City Council has snatched back a large pay raise from its city manager.

Scores of angry residents packed the usually quiet City Council chambers Monday night to vent their concern over a 20% raise for long-term City Manager Dennis Courtemarche that the council discussed during a closed-door session and later approved in July.

"I am astounded at the kind of mentality that is going on here," James Roybal told the council to cheers from the audience. "It is a slap in our face."

In addressing the council, several residents quoted an internal memo from Courtemarche concerning Pico Rivera's perilous financial situation and questioned how the city could afford to raise his salary to $200,000 a year. When a woman tried to speak in support of Courtemarche, she was interrupted by calls of "Sit down!" from the agitated crowd. A handful of others stomped out when the mayor defended the city manager.

The council was forced to rescind the pay increase and vote on it a second time because, in the eyes of the county district attorney, it had violated a state law -- the Brown Act -- that prohibits elected bodies from discussing salary increases in private.

Susan Chasworth, an assistant head deputy in the district attorney's Public Integrity Division, said county lawyers probably would have filed a civil lawsuit against Pico Rivera if it had refused to reconsider the raise in a public forum.

Courtemarche, who had been considering leaving his post before the council approved the pay raise, said Tuesday that he was disappointed by the council's reversal. "I present a package that was needed to justify my staying," he said. "Now the package isn't there, so I have to regroup and see what's up."

On Monday night, Courtemarche looked on silently as the council members nullified the pay package and then once again debated the merits of awarding him a raise.

"I don't like ultimatums," said Councilman Peter Ramirez, referring to what he said were threats from the city manager to quit if not given the raise.

Mayor Beatrice Proo, also a council member, voiced strong support for Courtemarche, insisting his expertise in running the city of 63,000 residents was worth the additional money.

In an unexpected turnaround, Councilman Carlos Garcia reversed his earlier support for the raise and helped rescind it in a 3-2 vote.

"The people showed that they didn't want it, and we voted against it," said Councilman David W. Armenta, adding that nearby cities pay their city managers less and require them to do more.

The Montebello city manager, for example, receives $124,000 a year while overseeing a $90-million budget, which includes the police, fire and transit departments. Pico Rivera, by contrast, operates on $23 million and contracts out police and fire services.

Chasworth said that since its inception in late 2000, the public integrity office has taken action in roughly 25 violations of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires legislative bodies to meet publicly, openly and with adequate notice.

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