11:46 PM PST on Wednesday, February 16, 2011

By JOHN F. HILL
The Press-Enterprise

After hours of debate, the Murrieta City Council on Tuesday passed an ordinance that would allow it to exceed voter-approved limits on what it can pay top employees.

Council members acknowledged the solution wasn’t final, and that it wasn’t going to satisfy the backers of Measure E.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be in the hands of a judge, unfortunately,” Councilman Douglas McAllister said.

Measure E proponent Bob Kowell, who spent $50,000 to get Measure E on the ballot and promote its passage, has vowed to sue the city if it didn’t enact the measure exactly as written. He said he already is in contact with a lawyer.

“The salaries of the city employees — and not just city employees but state and federal employees — keep going up while the salaries of the regular people keep going down,” Kowell said.

The council has for the past several weeks grappled with how to implement the measure despite a warning from its attorney that the initiative’s major component — capping city employees’ pay at 250 percent of Murrieta’s median family income — is illegal.

The council cannot relinquish to the voters its power to set employee compensation, Assistant City Attorney Jeffrey Morris wrote in a report, because of California Government Code 36506, which says: “the city council shall set the compensation of all appointive officers and employees.”

So council members, by a 3-1 vote with Rick Gibbs dissenting and Kelly Bennett absent, approved an ordinance that says they will consider the cap when making a hiring decision. The move doesn’t preclude them from exceeding the cap.

Gibbs has strongly opposed Measure E from its birth. He wanted the ordinance to be simpler, arguing that a court would have the final say anyway.

3 BALLOT INITIATIVES

Measure E was approved by voters in November, passing with more than a two-thirds majority. Every council member opposed Measure E during the campaign, arguing it would hurt the city’s ability to hire competent administrators.

To read entire story, click here.