Murrieta measures enacted by council, but changes, legal challenge possible

MURRIETA – Months of agonizing over three initiatives passed by Murrieta voters in November may have ended amid a heated, four-hour city council session Tuesday night, March 1, or maybe not.

The possibility of a citizen group lawsuit or a council request for a judge’s interpretation remain as steps are taken to finalize city ordinances enacting Measures C, D and E. As a result, the debate over the measures that limit council terms, and council and administrator pay levels could continue to play out in the weeks ahead.

“We’re at the point where we need to fish or cut bait,” Councilman Doug McAllister said at one point during the frustration-laden session. “This discussion has gone on ad nauseam.”

The latest in a string of council discussions on the initiatives was capped by a unanimous vote that endorsed the term limits measure and a pair of 3-2 votes to enact the council and administrator pay caps. Newly-elected Councilman Alan Long cast the deciding vote in both split decisions.

There was plenty of frustration to go around, as council members and initiative proponents clashed over legal nuances and voter intent. The three initiatives were soundly passed by voters on Nov. 2 despite the opposition of the council members who served at that time.

“In our efforts to compromise, we’re just making a mess out of things,” Councilman Rick Gibbs said during the debate. A leader of the citizen reform effort sharply criticized Councilwoman Kelly Bennett, an attorney who heads a mediation firm and has repeatedly challenged the legality of two of the initiatives.

“She’s absolutely wrong and she knows it,” said Bob Kowell, a local political activist. “We deserve to have our measures implemented as we voted.”

He continued his verbal blasts during a break in the meeting as he spoke to audience members and to newspaper reporters seated in a press section of the council chambers.

“This is ridiculous,” Kowell said. “It’s absurd what’s going on here.”

Kowell warned of a possible lawsuit and also the recall of one or more council members.

A critic of Kowell urged the council to hang tough and reject the initiatives as a legal boondoggle.

“Don’t be afraid of a recall,” Edward Faunce said in his remarks. “Do what’s right. He (Kowell) represents an extreme point of view.”

Faunce recommended that the council let the courts sort out the legality of the initiatives. He predicted that the initiative proponents would not prevail under legal scrutiny. “They will lose,” Faunce said.

Measure C, which was passed by 67 percent of the vote, said council members cannot serve more than two consecutive four-year terms in office. Terms are said to be consecutive unless they are at least four years apart. Since the initiative has not yet gone into effect, council members voted into office last year would be eligible for a full eight years in office.

Measures D and E spurred the most debate Tuesday night, as Murrieta’s legal advisors pointed out flaws or conflicts that would crop up with the rules governing the general law city.

But City Attorney Leslie Devaney also cautioned the council on the difficulties that Murrieta would face in getting a judge to rule on the issues unless a lawsuit is filed.

Measure D, which passed by nearly 70 percent of the votes cast, limited council members’ pay to 15 percent of the average or mean family income of city residents. Under that formula, council members would each earn about $14,500 a year for their duties.

Bennett cited a string of legal flaws and conflicts as she pressed for “court direction” on how to proceed.

“We need to get there the right way,” Bennett said. “This is not the right way.”

But Long, McAllister and Mayor Randon Lane countered that the council needed to carry out the will of the voters as best it could.

McAllister said the contentious comments reminded him of past councils that were sharply divided and marked by personal clashes.

The council also discussed Measure E at great length Tuesday night. Measure E calls for capping city managers’ salaries and benefits at no more than 2½ times the average family income. City Manager Rick Dudley is paid $210,011 a year. Dudley would not be immediately affected by Measure E. It would not alter Dudley’s current contract, which ends next year. The measure would impact a future contract with Dudley or his eventual replacement.

Although Tuesday’s council votes were a key milestone following the Nov. 2 election, panel members left open the possibility of seeking a court ruling or making additional changes before final votes are cast on the new ordinances in the weeks ahead.

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