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|Let’s Raise City Council Salaries|
|Political - San Diego Region|
|Written by Michael M. Rosen|
|Friday, 20 April 2012 05:53|
BOSTON, MASS. —We in San Diego might learn a thing or two from Boston, and I’m not talking about regional accents or cuisine or sports teams (although a baseball or football championship here or there wouldn’t hurt).
Instead, I mean civic governance. Yes, you read that right: America’s finest city could benefit from following the lead of what was once the most corrupt city government in the country, home to Irish and Italian mobsters and realm of longtime Mayor Thomas “Mumbles” Menino. Or, to be more precise, we should follow Boston’s lead when it comes to city council compensation.And I know this will sound even crazier coming from a fiscal conservative like me, who has railed in this space against bloated government employee salaries and benefits, but it’s time to raise our councilmembers’ salaries in order to make sure we attract the best candidates to some of our most important local offices.
On Monday, the San Diego City Council voted 7-1 to maintain its current salaries, a month after rejecting a proposal to double their wages.
The mayor will continue to receive his annual pay of $100,464, while councilmembers will continue to earn $75,386, and the city attorney’s salary will remain $193,000. Those salaries have not increased during the past nine years and have, in fact, been cut (along with those of other city employees) to accommodate the city’s budgetary distress.
Earlier this year, a city commission had proposed increasing pay to $235,000 for the mayor and $175,000 for councilmembers
During the council meeting, the salary commission’s chairman, Robert Ottilie, noted that more than 3,500 city employees earned more than councilmembers in 2010.
“We find that San Diego mayor and City Council salary levels are far below the level of compensation for equivalent positions in the private sector and far below the level that is needed to attract well-qualified and experienced candidates,” Ottilie wrote in his commission’s report. “In addition, current salary levels place the mayor and City Council far below a large percentage of city workers, most of whom have far fewer obligations and responsibilities.”
Ottilie also pointed out to KPBS that the council’s abysmally low salaries are deterring good candidates from seeking office. “So what we’ve done,” Ottilie asserted, “is limited our candidate pool to the point where what we have running for office are relatively young, inexperienced people that want to make it a career, that haven’t yet been successful with large businesses, or independently wealthy people.”
But councilmembers, sensing the political ties, unanimously repudiated the commission’s recommendations.
“It’s a joke to even think that we would vote for this,” said Councilman David Alvarez. “I don’t think anybody on this council ran for council thinking that they were going to make a lot of money. Nobody’s here to get rich.”
Alvarez’s comment is correct, of course, but incomplete. For sure, nobody runs for San Diego City Council hoping to score the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And while more than doubling councilmembers’ salaries during the Great Recession may not be the best idea, raising them modestly would.
In Boston, however, city councilmembers earn slightly more than their San Diego counterparts, i.e. approximately $87,500 per year, while Boston’s cost of living is about 10 percent lower than in San Diego and its population is half of ours. In addition, Beantown aldermen are free to pursue outside employment, a perk denied to San Diego councilmembers.
Other local municipalities offer their elected officials higher salaries. Councilmembers in Los Angeles top the list among big cities, taking home more than $178,000 per annum, while those in Washington, D.C. earn more than $130,000 each year. Closer to home, San Diego County supervisors rake in $143,000 annually, nearly double their counterparts at the city level.
Instead, our councilmembers’ salaries barely eclipse the median household income in the city, and almost invariably require incoming councilmembers to take a pay cut, often a significant one. This is a problem, as Ottilie sagely observes, because the pay discrepancy means we’re not necessarily attracting the best candidates to nine of our city’s most important elected positions.
In general, the only candidates who can afford to serve as councilmembers are those who are independently wealthy, whose spouses bring in significant additional income, who are young and raw enough not to need or care about money, or who, pace Alvarez, are willing to delay financial gratification and hope to cash in on their positions after they step down.
In most, if not all, council districts, it’s very difficult to live off $75,386, and the inability of councilmembers to seek additional work deters some of our best and brightest from running. If we’re reluctant, for ethical and logistical reasons, to let them pursue employment outside of council, then let’s give them a fighting chance to get by in San Diego and at least raise their salaries to $100,000.
Part of the problem is that sitting councilmembers don’t want to seem greedy and self-serving, which is understandable. So let them raise salaries modestly and, even better, have the increase apply only to future councilmembers, not themselves, as some have suggested.
So let’s learn something from our older brother of a city, founded more than 200 years before ours, which this weekend celebrates the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. Play ball.
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