What do council members make in SLO County?

January 20, 2014
John Ashbaugh

John Ashbaugh


Some part-time city council members and mayors in San Luis Obispo County earn high compensation rates for the hours they work.

The top earners among council members in the county received approximately $27,000 to $30,000 in total compensation in 2013. San Luis Obispo Councilman John Ashbaugh received the highest compensation of $29,768.92. Paso Robles Mayor Duane Picanco received the second highest total of $28,006.96, followed by Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham, who received $27,120.52.

When asked about his pay, Ashbaugh said he has argued for reductions in council compensation and will oppose any recommended increases.

“I don’t do this to get rich,” Ashbaugh said. “I don’t take all that I’m entitled to.”

Ashbaugh said his compensation is higher than other council members because he does not have the ability to receive health insurance through a spouse’s plan.

Paso Robles Mayor Picanco, like the other mayors and city council members in San Luis Obispo County, serves part time. In addition to presiding over council meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, he serves on regional boards.

A CalCoastNews inquiry shows that Picanco received about $297 an hour in 2013 for his participation at meetings. Picanco spent about 94 hours in meetings of the Paso Robles council, the San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission and the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority.

Picanco is one of a number of city council members and mayors in San Luis Obispo County whose hourly pay reaches into the $150 to $300 range. Picanco did not respond when asked to comment.

Higginbotham earned about $255 per hour for approximately 106 hours of participation in government meetings. In addition to serving as a member of the Pismo Beach council, Higginbotham sits on the San Luis Obispo Council of Government, San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority, San Luis Obispo County Homeless Services Oversight Council (HSOC) and South County Transit Board.

“Thank you for letting me know,” Higginbotham said when asked for a comment on her pay.

Ashbaugh earned about $164 per hour for his participation in meetings. He spent approximately 182 hours attending meetings in 2013. In addition to sitting on the San Luis Obispo City Council, Ashbaugh served on boards for the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority, Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo, San Luis Obispo County Water Resources Advisory Committee and HSOC.

Mayors and council members receive pay in the form of salaries and customized benefit packages, consisting mostly of health benefits. Many council members forego some or all benefits, but others double or even triple their pay by accepting generous benefit packages. Council members that belong to certain regional boards also receive stipends from the respective agencies for participation in meetings.

CalCoastNews determined the total compensation of council members by adding their salary, benefit and stipend totals. Salary and benefits, which comprise the majority of council member pay are exact numbers obtained from the individual cities. Stipend totals from participation in regional boards are in some cases estimations based on the number of meetings council members appear to have attended.

CalCoastNews determined the hourly rates of the top earners by dividing total compensation by the number of hours they spent in council and regional board meetings. The calculations do not include hours spent outside of official city and regional meetings. In the case of some regional board meetings, the hour tallies are estimations.

On average, Paso Robles council members earned the most in the county. Paso Robles councilmen earned more than $25,000 on average with little variation in pay. Each councilman in Paso Robles received more than $200 an hour for his participation in meetings.

Grover Beach council members earned the least pay in the county. Each member of the Grover Beach council, with the exception of Councilman Glenn Marshall, received at total of $3,875.40 in salary and benefits. Including board stipends, only Mayor Debbie Peterson earned more than $5,000.

Marshall elected not to take any pay from the city. He was the only council member countywide not to receive financial compensation for his position.

Atascadero, like Grover Beach, pays its council members annual salaries of $3,600. Only Mayor Tom O’Malley opted to take health benefits in 2013, boosting his total pay to $12,170.50.

Morro Bay Councilwoman Nancy Johnson was the only council member in the county to cash out benefits. Johnson received $5,153.56 in cash for unused health coverage, nearly doubling her paycheck. She did so despite voting in November to eliminate the Morro Bay policy allowing council members to cash out unused health benefits.

Each member of the Morro Bay council received a total compensation in the $11,000 to $14,000 range.

Other councils, though, had sizable differences in pay among their members.

While Ashbaugh earned $29,768.92, San Luis Obispo Councilman Dan Carpenter received $11,410.96. Carpenter foregoes the majority of benefits offered, including a CalPERS retirement contribution. The other members of the San Luis Obispo council receive annual CalPERS contributions of between $2,000 and $4,000, paid for by the city.

The Pismo Beach council had three members make more than $20,000 and two receive less than $12,000 in 2013 total pay.

Higginbotham earned $27,120.52, but Pismo Beach Councilman Ed Waage received only $10,897.92. Both Waage and Councilman Kris Vardas elected not to take health insurance, while Higginbotham, Councilwoman Mary Ann Reiss and Councilman Erik Howell each received more than $10,000 in health benefits from Pismo Beach.

In Arroyo Grande, former councilwoman Caren Ray earned more than Mayor Tony Ferrara and Councilman Tim Brown combined, despite giving up her seat in October. Ray earned nearly $17,000 from Arroyo Grande in 2013, even though she left the council to join the Board of Supervisors.

Councilman Joe Costello had the highest pay among Arroyo Grande council members. He received $22,482 in total compensation.

San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx received the highest salary, $14,404, among council members in the county. Marx’s compensation for the year totaled $20,033.90. She did not take medical coverage but received nearly $6,000 in retirement contributions and board meeting stipends.


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With the exception of Fred Strong, The Paso Robles City council could be effectively replaced by bobble heads. Then we might get an occasional no vote (during an earthquake?) when city management, engineering and planning departments propose projects that desecrate neighborhoods and impede traffic. Look at the Target maze, diagonal parking and the gaudy Heritage Oaks Bank behemoth on Vine. Now, look at the 21st St project. When it flooded after a relatively small amount of rain, the city was heard to say everything was working as planned. That may be so but it is certainly not working as promised. And plans are underway to repeat this make-work atrocity on 12th St.

Public service for elected officials was once about giving back, now it is about taking and Council Ashbaugh personifies that.

What’s troubling isn’t that council members are paid. They should be paid — it’s a job. They’re probably “paid” too little for the seriousness of the job and the wisdom it demands if done well. Only the rich, the kept, or the retired can “afford” these jobs, and that doesn’t produce good representation.

What’s bothersome about the total compensation being reported is this actual compensation is so different from the piddling amounts that the public is told about. Who’d have thought that supposedly part-time council members are earning some multiple of their “pay” through benefits? Sure didn’t occur to me. That’s not transparent, and non-transparent government is bad government.

The really funny thing is that if any of these people get tossed out of office by voters, as city employees whose job is “terminated” they’d probably qualify for unemployment. Wonder how many apply for it? Josh, why not ask all the cities that question and watch them squirm?

Those are good points; however, if it’s a full-paid position, we’re more than likely to just attract “cheaters” – I’ll stick with the “kept” men and women.

Also, I think the hourly rate, while mathematically correct for hours served while in a meeting, probably do not account for non-meeting time (prep, post-meeting Q&A, whatever).

Still, I like PART-TIME government. ALL “officials” who govern should be part time. Less chance of them making up work to justify their full time position. Kind of like a 24-hour news channel… there really isn’t 24 hours of news, so they resort to make-work programming.

Isn’t it Texas that has their state legislature meet only once every two years or something?

Pay them less, maybe – just maybe, we’ll attract better candidates.

Compensation does not attract good people into local office… it attracts people who want to be paid, pure and simple.

There is some common warning signs that call attention to an employee who might be stealing from you. Does the employee have a disclosed or undisclosed need? Can the employee justify their questionable actions? Does the employee have little or no oversight? How many elected officials fall into this category??

How many county elected officials fit Roosevelt’s criteria below??

“Honesty is not so much a credit as an absolute prerequisite to efficient service to the public. Unless a man is honest, we have no right to keep him in public life; it matters not how brilliant his capacity”

Theodore Roosevelt

Of course, Roosevelt’s quote doesn’t really fit Ashbaugh; he has no brilliant capacity.

Only problem with Teddy was his progressivism. He was our first, so it wasn’t as bad. It did, however, only get worse and worse over the decades.

progressives the folks organized around the question “should one family control the destiny of an entire nation?” 10-4 Eleanor

Compensations for City officials is a good policy. It protects us from only having ‘the rich’ be able to ‘serve’. The health benefits seem to have gotten out of hand in MB, though, where the equivalent to Medicare would be the best policy.

Sorry, Josh, but this is a pretty thin analysis. You could look at an NBA basketball player and say, hey, he’s only working 48 minutes on an average night–at most!!–and taking his salary and, hmmm, divide that by the total number of games x minutes, and HEY! He’s making a million dollars per hour!!! No, you have not accounted for practice time, travel time, drills, study, the expected personal appearances on behalf of the team and the NBA and all the other stuff. So to take a Councilmember’s pay and calculate only by the actual time in front of a microphone—-no. Doesn’t work. Is there not a better barometer of effectiveness when it comes to public officials?

The article contains numerous false assertions. Council members and mayors in San Luis Obispo County do NOT earn high compensation rates for the hours they work. Calculating the hourly pay by dividing the annual compensation (including healthcare, pension contributions, and other benefits) by the number of council meeting hours is grossly misleading. As other people have stated, elected officials spend countless hours each week, preparing for council meetings, responding to citizens’ concerns, attending other meetings and official events. Being a mayor/council member is basically a full-time job in SLO.

Compensation for council members and mayors should be significantly raised rather than decreased. Otherwise, only people who are independently wealthy will be able to hold public office.

What you see as politicking others very as public service and representation. Many service groups expect these elected officials to come spear support there events. The outwardly silly act of a ribbon cutting is in support of local businesses and these partnerships serve the greater community. How about city officials attending an Eagle Scout ceremony? Yes, it’s optional, but it’s a service many expect and appreciate.

Council direction of city staff is the result of communication with the public and a variety of stack holders. That takes more than just filling a seat at a meeting.

SLOpoke is correct; while Josh’s article is MATHEMATICALLY correct, it can be highly misleading to low-information types (obviously not many here, as several of us have pointed it out).

However, where Josh should be commended, he did compare APPLES to APPLES. So whether it’s a fair salary or not, isn’t the point as much as we see what each person makes RELATIVE to other county officials who also are part-time / similar roles.

I would disagree with SLOpoke about raising the salary; I think it is fine – it IS part-time work, and a $25k/year PART-TIME job ain’t so bad.

I’m curious how CA SB-1234 (which PASSED) will effect them, though… but that’s a WHOLE ‘NUTHER topic.

(hint, hint, CCN)