Friday, September 07, 2007

Sixty Years: Time for a Raise

There are two reasons I supported a pay raise for City Council: it is the right thing to do, justifiable on the grounds of the real cost of being a Council member; and it just might give us a more representative Council.

The Charter Amendment on the ballot will provide a modest raise, ($500 per month Mayor, $300 per month for Council members) which will increase in step with the average San Angelo median wage, as given annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for our area. As a Charter Amendment, it means this level cannot be further tampered with by future Councils without a supporting vote of the electorate. In fine, no future Council can expand on this by a 4-3 vote. This point also goes to the objection I hear a lot: "They knew what the job paid when they ran, they should accept it or resign". This is not an ordinance. The Council is not, cannot be, unilaterally giving itself a raise, as this only happens if the voters approve it.

I hold it is the right thing to do because I know the costs of the job. Between Council meetings and other duties, a Council member spends a minimum of 20 hours a week in constituent services and preparing for the upcoming agenda. This is time away from the real income earning job, time away from family, other hobbies or leisure time. Current compensation is laughable, far less than minimum wage. Some hold the salary was set in 1915, one source thinks it might have been set as late as 1943, but in either case, most jobs have seen a pay raise in the last 60 years.

The increase in this Amendment is still under minimum wage, assuming the 20 hour/week estimate, and frankly, I lobbied for a more generous level. No workman at any task should be denied fair compensation. I have come to personally know a few Council members over the years, and I know my 20 hour a week estimate is usually conservative.

My second point, the benefit to the city of an expanded pool of potential Council candidates is very real. As things stand, only an individual with both time and money to skip out of work at need can realistically run for office. Though I think Council low-balled the figure even with the increase, it is possible that a good, well-informed working class representative might find the additional money just enough to run for and perform the job without beggaring his family. I think we can agree that in most cases, having a credible opponent improves the voters' position. An opponent, even without winning, can force an incumbent to respond on record to issues that might otherwise be ignored.

Former Standard-Times editor Jack Cowan made the comparison recently between elections in the 90's with a herd of candidates and our current tendency to incumbency by lack of opponent. Now I happen to think some of the "old boy network" noise is a bit overblown for a Council whose two oldest members are only in their fifth year. I happen to believe current Council is catching the heat for some decisions that predate them, just because the public actually felt the inconveniences during current Council's term. One of my all-time favorite Council members (not my district) ran without opposition last term. Regardless, I strongly believe future Councils will be improved if a lively opposition holds each candidate's feet to the fire of public debate.

In the context of the total city budget, the full package of Council pay raise proposed is less than a pimple in an eight figure budget. Whatever your opinion of today's Council, I know and well remember worse. If we reject this nod to minimal fairness, we might find ourselves, God forbid, with a Council that demonstrates the old saying, "You get what you pay for".

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