10:00 PM PST on Sunday, February 13, 2011

By JOHN F. HILL
The Press-Enterprise

An ordinance to be considered by the Murrieta City Council on Tuesday would allow the city to hire employees at salaries that exceed voter-approved limits.

The reason, council members and the city attorney said, is the limits are illegal.

The ordinance is intended as a compromise with voters who overwhelmingly approved Measure E, which sought to restrain city salaries with a strict cap.

The city attorney’s office has said the council can’t legally give up its power to set the compensation of employees. So the city’s answer has been the ordinance, which says the council must consider a number of factors before deciding what to pay top workers. The factors would include the average salary in cities of similar size, Murrieta’s median income and the candidate’s job qualifications.

But it wouldn’t hold the City Council, or future councils, to Measure E’s pay-and-benefits cap, set at 250 percent of the city’s median family income.

That doesn’t sit well with the activists who supported the measure.

“I think they’re disconnected with what the will of the people is,” said Bob Kowell, who spent $50,000 to create and promote Measure E and two other initiatives. “I don’t know who they represent but they don’t represent us.”

In November, voters passed Measure E, which received about two-thirds approval. It set a limit for the city manager and other top workers that this year works out to a salary of about $140,000. A number of Murrieta employees exceed that amount. For example, City Manager Rick Dudley’s base salary last year was $210,000.

Mayor Randon Lane said the council would work to find qualified employees that fit under the cap. But, if a qualified candidate couldn’t be found at that price — and Lane said the city would have a hard time retaining a city manager at $140,000 — the mayor said the council would have to consider exceeding it.

“If I have to go outside those bounds … then that gives us that option,” Lane said.

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