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11.3% raise for elected official

Huntington Beach mayor says city attorney earned it.

December 22, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Huntington Beach's elected city attorney received an unscheduled $21,000 yearly raise from the City Council this week, three weeks after she filed for personal bankruptcy, city and court records show.

In interviews, City Atty. Jennifer McGrath and two council members who voted for the raise said the two events were not connected, and that the council was not even aware of McGrath's financial difficulties at the time of the vote.

McGrath and Councilman Keith Bohr, who made the motion to award the raise, acknowledged that the matter was not listed on the council's agenda as a discussion item.

Instead, it was taken up as part of an item granting 3% cost-of-living adjustments and enhanced retirement benefits to city department heads. McGrath's raise amounted to an 11.3% increase, bringing her total salary to $208,520 per year.

Bohr and McGrath said the raise was awarded as a follow-up to McGrath's formal request in January for a pay adjustment, after a survey of salaries for other city attorneys in the region found hers to be 22% below the market rate.

The city attorney in Los Angeles makes $214,546, and the city attorney in Santa Ana makes $181,476.

The council then awarded half the raise she sought, but gave her a list of goals to achieve before coming back in one year to document the strides her office had made and request the rest of the raise. The measure was adopted unanimously at the council's meeting Monday.

McGrath said the raise was not expected and that she hadn't planned to request it until she submitted an annual report on her office's activities next year.

"I really do believe I got that raise on merit," she said. "I earned it."

Bohr and Mayor Debbie Cook said they voted for McGrath's raise because she had done a good job meeting the goals set for her earlier in the year.

"Jennifer has done an incredible job reducing our costs for the city, so that's the reason behind it," Cook said.

McGrath, 39, was first elected city attorney in 2002 and reelected in 2006. She filed for bankruptcy Nov. 26, citing $1.04 million in assets but $1.22 million in obligations, including nearly $450,000 to unsecured creditors.

Most of the debts appear to be related to the failure of her estranged husband's telecommunications business, although there was also more than $25,000 in debts stemming from a credit card and a line of credit in her name at the Huntington Beach employee credit union, $11,000 on a Bank of America credit card and more than $56,000 in student loans from law school. McGrath said she was seeking to discharge the credit card debts but would continue to pay the student loans.

McGrath filed for divorce from her husband of 13 years in September, citing irreconcilable differences. In the filing, McGrath said her expenses exceeded her monthly take-home salary of $12,400 by $165.

Her largest expenses were for mortgage and child care, although she also cited costs of $480 per month for auto insurance. McGrath was arrested by Huntington Beach police in 2005 for driving under the influence, after she was stopped driving on the wrong side of the city's Main Street. She pleaded guilty and paid a fine in February 2006.

christian.berthelsen@ latimes.com

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