Former Mayor Lila Cockrell posed the question Thursday afternoon:
If you wanted to run for a City Council seat and found out that the full-time position only paid $20 per meeting, maxing out at $1,040 per year, could you – would you – do it?
Unless you come from money, are retired, have a spouse or family member working full-time to support you, or willing to essentially cram two work days into one, the answer is almost certainly “No.”
Cockrell (served ’75-’81, ’89-’91) was joined by former Mayors Henry Cisneros (’81-’89), Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff (’91-’95), Howard Peak (’97-’01), and Phil Hardberger (’05-’09) to call for San Antonians to vote in favor of paying their City Council members and mayors a living wage.
The Sensible Pay For SA campaign is chaired by David McGee, president and CEO of Amegy Bank San Antonio. McGee was also a member of the Charter Review Commission that crafted the charter amendment that was ultimately approved by City Council.
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“I personally was skeptical at one time about paying our City Council a reasonable salary,” McGee said. “And then I had the opportunity to work first hand with our mayor and City Council on critical issues in San Antonio and I realized that they put in more hours than I really understood.”
Charter Amendment 2 would update rates set in 1951 – when serving on Council meant attending sporadic ribbon-cutting ceremonies and showing up at a meeting once a week to serve a population of about 500,000. The modern council member’s schedule includes council and committee meetings, community events, luncheons, policy discussions, and research. In 2015, the city is approaching 1.5 million residents.
“It was the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life … And by the way, I want it made clear: I’m not asking for retroactivity,” Hardberger said to laughter. The salaries will go into effect in July 2015.
Clearly the times have changed, Cisneros said.
“Shouldn’t we have a system of government that is up to the times? … We can do better than $20 a week. We can do better to create a government that … responds to the reality of (being) one of the most dynamic cities in the country.”
While other Texan cities pay what some call a “premium” – Houston pays council members an annual salary of $62,408 and Austin pays $69,885 – Charter Amendment 2 only asks voters if they should be paid the median income in San Antonio. If approved by voters, Council would be paid a $45,722 salary and the mayor $61,725 – without raising taxes. There is no guaranteed, cost-of-living increase on the ballot this time. Salaries will be taken out of the City Budget, which for fiscal year 2015 is $2.4 billion. The $518,945 it will take to pay council members a respectable wage is a drop in the bucket, Hardberger said.
Critics of Charter Amendment 2 have said that Council members should not be motivated by money, rather the passion of public service. Some fear that adding money to the process will corrupt the system. To that, Hardberger replies, “If that is true, why do we pay anybody any salaries whatsoever? We can run off all of the people we’re paying and let’s just see what crowd shows up the next day (to work for the City).”
Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine someone joining the council to get rich from a median income.
There are many more reasons to pay, Cisneros said. Paying only $20 per meeting puts financial stress on elected officials, encourages “extraordinarily” quick turnover rates on the dais, and decreases the pool of candidates that can afford to serve.
Wolff can sum up his main argument in favor of paying with one word: Talent.
“Gaining talent and retaining talent,” he said, pointing to a “new generation of leaders” sitting on the current council and future councils. “Other (opportunities) will come along and (if they aren’t paid) they will leave.”
Citizens are asked all the time to make investments in their city, Peak said. This election, they will be asked to pay a 1/8 sales tax to continue both the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and work to complete the expansive Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System – Propositions 1 & 2 on this year’s ballot.
“Voters understand the long-term investment required,” Peak said. “Charter Amendment 2 is another investment in our leaders and San Antonio residents deserve highly qualified elected officials who are accountable to voters for the complex operations of a growing, vibrant city.”
*Featured/top image: City Council Chambers. Photo by Scott Ball.