City Attorney Michael Bernard addresses City Council during a session in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Randy_Bear

You’re a highly engaged citizen of San Antonio, usually someone who’s more in tune with what goes on in the city than most. One day, you decide to take that to the next level and run for one of the ten seats on San Antonio’s City Council.

Of course, you can only run in the district you live in but that’s okay since you’re going to need the support of your friends and neighbors.

In almost every case, you’re going to have an opponent, which means you’ve got to spend money campaigning; in fact, possibly more money in one election cycle than you’ll ever make serving on council.

To manage an annual budget of $2 billion, you’re paid .000052 percent of that budget, or, as those of us who’ve dealt with large budgets call it, a rounding error.

City Attorney Michael Bernard addresses City Council during a session in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
City Attorney Michael Bernard addresses City Council during a session in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

That’s the situation for our part-time council members in San Antonio, the 7th largest city in the nation. Article II, Section 6 of our city charter states “Each member of the council shall receive as compensation for his services as such member the sum of twenty dollars ($20.00) for each meeting of the council attended, provided that the total of such compensation shall not exceed one thousand forty dollars ($1,040.00) per annum.”

In comparison, according to a Pew Trusts report, Los Angeles pays full-time council members $178,789 annually followed by Washington DC paying part-time council members $130,538 annually.

A breakdown of San Antonio City Council salary budget. Screen shot from Pew Charitable Trusts' interactive tool.
A breakdown of San Antonio City Council salary budget. From Pew Charitable Trusts’ interactive tool.

In Texas, Austin pays its mayor $81,344 and council members $69,885 annually, both of which are full-time. Houston, with a full-time mayor and council, has a little disparity in its salaries, paying Mayor Annise Parker $209,000 and city council $56,000 annually. Even some of the towns around Houston pay their mayor and council more than San Antonio, with cities like Katy and Pasadena paying council members around $11,000 a year. Dallas pays its part-time council members around $35,000 a year and the mayor $60,000, as dictated by charter.

One thing to remember about Houston’s high salary for mayor is that the mayor acts as the city manager, being paid about the same as city managers of other major Texas cities, including San Antonio.

This issue has come up before, with former Mayor Ed Garza championing a charter amendment change to not only increase the salaries of the mayor and council members, but to also lengthen the terms of council members. Garza proposed lengthening terms from two two-year terms to three three-year terms and increasing council salary to 75 percent of the median income for San Antonians and 100 percent for the mayor. At that time, the median income was $41,331. Both charter changes failed by a two to one margin.

Garza may have bitten off too much with the charter changes, asking San Antonio voters to give city council more time and money, especially coming off a period of questionable ethics. In that same charter election, voters approved the creation of an Ethics Review Board for city council. Garza apparently thought that introducing all three would satisfy any concerns voters might have regarding increased terms or salaries by including the creation of the Ethics Review Board.

San Antonio City Council terms and perks. From Pew Charitable Trusts' interactive tool.
San Antonio City Council terms and perks. From Pew Charitable Trusts’ interactive tool.

In 2008, former Mayor Phil Hardberger approached the issue of increased term limits with a charter amendment change to four two-year terms, effective for any council members elected after passage of the change. By asking voters to only change term limits and by removing any sitting or prior council members from taking advantage of the change, Hardberger rightfully felt voters would approve such changes.

This year a Contemporary Issues in Public Administration class in UTSA’s College of Public Policy has undertaken a study entitled “To Pay or Not to Pay? Gathering Public Input on City Council Salaries.” Thursday, the class held a community meeting to gather input from community members about the matter. Groups of 4 or 5 people discussed a range of issues, including how much council members might be paid, whether the current council would be able to take advantage of the new salaries, and how the changes might be initiated, through action by council or by citizen petition.

While citizens could petition the council to amend the charter, increasing council pay, most likely any charter change would come from within city council. The item has been discussed a couple of times, with the San Antonio Express-News reporting on the matter in February and running an editorial in support of the change, as well. Most likely, it is on the list of initiatives Mayor Julian Castro would like to complete before he leaves office, possibly in the 2016 timeframe.

It’s hard to say when the best time would be to propose such a change to voters. Texas law allows municipal elections twice a year, in May or November. This coming May will already have a special election to replace former Councilwoman Elisa Chan and the November election would put the initiative in the middle of statewide races that are expected to draw conservative voters. Most likely the best chance for proposing the change would be in 2016, in Castro’s last term in office.

Looking back at Garza’s salary proposal, one interesting point that might entice voters is that “no compensation established by this section shall be paid for a week during which a member of the Council fails to attend each meeting of the council scheduled by ordinance,” creating a compulsion to attend city council meetings. Had this been in effect, it’s quite possible Councilman David Medina might have had a better attendance record.

On Dec. 5, from 12:45 to 2:15, the UTSA class will be presenting its findings along with a panel discussion by various members of the community, including Gilbert Garcia of the Express-News. The presentation will be held in the Southwest Room of the Durango Street Building.

Randy Bear is a 20-plus years  San Antonio resident, transplanted from Little Rock to join the ranks of USAA in Information Technology. Over the last two decades, he’s been involved in a variety of civic and political activities, including work with San Antonio Sports, KLRN, Keep San Antonio Beautiful, and Fiesta San Antonio. Randy’s political life took root when several friends from Arkansas pulled him into the first Clinton presidential campaign. Since then, he’s been active in politics and government, including a brief period serving on the staff of former City Councilman Reed Williams. 

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Randy Bear

Randy Bear is a 20-plus years San Antonio resident, transplanted from Little Rock to join the ranks of USAA in Information Technology. Over the last two decades, he’s been involved in a variety of civic...