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Lynwood Council Members Enjoy Lavish Perks and Pay

In one of L.A. County's poorest cities, leaders draw six-figure incomes, tap city credit cards and travel widely. 'We earn every penny,' one says.

September 15, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Lynwood has an annual per capita income of only $9,500, but its elected leaders are among the best-paid part-time politicians in California.

A majority of the City Council enjoy six-figure incomes, lavish foreign travel and the generous use of city credit cards for meals and entertainment, including steakhouse dinners, a New York musical and a dance show in Rio de Janeiro.

Travel and credit card expenses by the five-member council have cost taxpayers more than $600,000 over the last five years, records show, and include city-paid trips to Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America.

Council members Louis Byrd and Paul Richards have each made more than 25 out-of-town trips in the last two years.

The travel, Byrd said, helps promote Lynwood, a city of 70,000 residents located at the junction of the Long Beach and Century freeways.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, representing the nation's second-largest city and one of the world's busiest ports, took nine business trips during the same period.

The council jobs pay annual salaries of $9,600, but three members -- Byrd, Richards and Arturo Reyes -- each earned more than $100,000 in 2000 and 2001, city records show.

Council members boost their salaries by serving on two city agencies, earning $900 for back-to-back meetings that often last only minutes. Council members also collect a $100 per diem to represent Lynwood at local parades, golf tournaments, beauty pageants and USC football's Salute to Troy.

The appearances and meeting stipends add up. In 2001, Byrd, a former elementary school principal, was paid $121,000; Richards, an attorney, got $110,000.

"We earn every penny of it," Byrd said.

By comparison, City Council members in Long Beach, which is six times larger than Lynwood and has an international port, are paid $26,000 a year.

Lynwood, one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, can hardly afford its big-spending leaders.

The city's $1.3-million budget gap in the current $13-million general fund had to be covered with emergency reserves. During budget deliberations, however, council members did not cut their own expenses.

Faustin Gonzalez, who resigned earlier this year as city manager, said he had trouble reining in his free-spending bosses.

"It was extremely difficult to control them," he said. "If you asked them to justify what they did, sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't. If they didn't, what could you do?"

Lynwood council members do not have to routinely provide receipts for their credit card purchases, nor do they have to receive city approval for out-of-town travel or complete travel reports to account for their trips.

When Byrd was asked by a reporter how he justified charging the city $1,300 to attend his Kappa Alpha Psi college fraternity reunion at a San Diego resort, he said, "I don't know. You figure it out."

Critics say the council's arrogance and extravagant spending is, in part, driving the Sept. 23 recall election against Richards, and will figure in the political futures of Byrd and Reyes, who face reelection in November.

The recall petition, citing Richards' compensation, accuses him of using the city treasury as his "personal piggy bank."

"We know that they are wasting a lot of taxpayer funds, and that's got to stop," said Salvador Alatorre, who is running for city treasurer in November. "We have to slice the perks and salaries."

Richards, the city's dominant political figure during much of his 17-year council tenure, declined to be interviewed for this story.

He said in a written statement that much of his travel involves his membership in such groups as the Independent Cities Assn. and the League of California Cities. He said a 1999 stay at a beach resort in Ghana helped foster trade and cultural ties.

Local government experts say the council's pay and perquisites are unusual for a city the size of Lynwood.

"I'm not used to seeing those kinds of numbers,'' said Gary Milliman, the former Southern California director of the California League of Cities and the city manager of South Gate.

Lynwood's generous pay has evolved through a combination of voter apathy, scant media scrutiny and limited access to City Hall records, residents and political observers say.

Residents complain that they cannot keep track of how much their elected officials are earning or when they are traveling at taxpayer expense. Miguel Figueroa, a lampshade maker, had to file a lawsuit and wait two years to see city credit card records and council earnings information.

Reyes, who considers himself a reformer, said he agrees with critics who complain that the council is overpaid.

While serving as mayor last year, he cut the number of agency meetings in half. Even so, he and his colleagues still made more than $70,000.

"It's a flagrant abuse of the public trust," said Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.

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