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Council Tensions Rise Over Point of Privilege

By Jorge Casuso

September 28, 2023 -- Simmering tensions between City Councilmembers boiled over Tuesday night as a discussion over amending rules and procedures turned personal.

The main debate, which kicked off shortly after the item was called around midnight, centered on Councilmember Caroline Torosis' use of a paid intern to represent her at a meeting of the Pier Board.

"This was concerning to me," said Christine Parra, who along with Councilmember Lana Negrete addressed the issue in a proposed amendment to the item that barred personal paid representatives.

"I don't think they should be representing you as (if they were) a City employee out in public," Parra said. "We need to make it clear that only City employees and vetted City interns can represent us."

Negrete said that several Councilmembers had asked the City Manager for interns to help alleviate the heavy Council workload and been turned down, then told staff would be looking into it before the issue was dropped.

"We would all love to have that support, and some of us don't have the financial means to do that," Negrete said. "So it really makes it unequal across the board."

Torosis said she paid the intern with money from her Council stipend -- which according to financial records totals $1,426 per month -- a practice she announced during her campaign for City Council last year.

"When running I told everyone that I planned to use my stipend to hire graduate students," Torosis said. "I've proudly used my stipend" to do that.

Torosis added that she, too, had told the City Manager that each Councilmember should have a staff member assigned to support them.

Councilmember Jesse Zwick defended Torosis' practice, saying he was confused by the other Councilmembers' response.

"If someone chooses to get extra help in order to be more responsive to the residents of the City, I'm very confused how that hurts anyone. How can we legislate who we choose to represent us at a given function?"

Negrete shot back. "I would just like everyone to take a moment and listen to what privilege sounds like, 'cause I just heard it back to back."

That attitude, Negrete said, comes from living in a financial "bubble" and "lacks the compassion that you say you want from things like bicycle lanes and the environment."

Negrete, who is a small business owner, said she raising a family and needs her "tiny little stipend" to help make ends meet.

"It should be fair and equal across the board," she said. "Not everyone can afford to find people to work for them."

Zwick calmly responded. "I'm in support of everyone getting more help," he said. "I would happily work with you."

And he repeated that he didn't understand why Councilmembers would be going after someone "for doing their job."

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre said he, too, would like the City Manager to explore providing Councilmembers with a City employee or intern.

"We need at least a part-time person," de la Torre said. "At a minimum, there should be some equity on the dais."

De la Torre then moved the main item that included barring non-City employees or interns from representing Councilmembers at public meetings.

It also included permanently adopting a pilot program to hold hybrid meetings that can be attended both in person and online and keeping the meeting start time at 5:30 p.m., instead of moving it to six.

In addition, the motion included allowing individual Councilmembers to place items on the agenda and absent Councilmembers to have their statement posted online and read by the City Clerk at the meeting.

The motion passed 5 to 2 with Torosis and Zwick casting the dissenting votes.

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