10:00 PM PST on Friday, March 4, 2011

By JOHN F. HILL
The Press-Enterprise

A leading backer of Murrieta’s three voter-approved ballot measures said he will meet with a lawyer next week to start working on a plan to sue the city over its inability to enact the initiatives.

For the third straight meeting, the City Council on Tuesday amended its approach to three ballot measures, but acknowledged its solution wouldn’t satisfy voters.

By the end of the meeting, council members were asking City Attorney Leslie Devaney about the quickest way to get the matter to court.

“We’re just making a mess of things,” Councilman Rick Gibbs said at the end of another four-hour meeting dominated by debate over Measures C, D and E.

The measures’ proponents seem likely to oblige. Bob Kowell was asked during a break in the council’s meeting this week if he planned to take the city to court.

“Oh yeah,” Kowell said. “We’re gonna sue them to death.”

Kowell said he wouldn’t know when that lawsuit would be filed until he met with his lawyer next week.

Voters passed the measures in November, and because the election was certified they have technically been part of the city’s code. But the council has worked for weeks to fashion so-called implementing ordinances to clarify how the laws will be carried out.

Measure C imposes two-term limits on council members. Measure D aims to cap their salaries and benefits. Measure E seeks a cap on the compensation of top city employees like the city manager.

Voters approved the ballot initiatives in November by a 2-to-1 margin in each case.

But since 2008, when proponents collected enough signatures to get the questions on the ballot, the city attorney’s office has said the measures call for actions not allowed by state laws.

The council cannot relinquish to the voters its power to set employee compensation, because of a code that says the council “shall” set employees’ compensation, the city’s attorneys have said. They also cannot be forced to give up their benefits if city employees are offered the same packages, according to the attorneys.

Proponents disagree with the attorneys’ interpretations.

The ordinances passed on Tuesday, two of which still need to be officially approved after they were tweaked for the third straight meeting, aim to implement the spirit of the measures but leave out portions city attorneys have said aren’t allowed. The Measure E ordinance, for example, calls for the council to consider the voter-approved salary cap, but allows it to exceed it if no qualified candidates can be found to accept the lower salary.

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