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City Council members and the mayor will discuss one of the most awkward subjects they will face in office when they meet next Wednesday: should they ask voters to approve an amendment to the City Charter that would pay them salaries as full-time representatives.
Voters will elect a mayor, 10 council members and decide yes or no on any charter amendments in the May 9 city election.
The Charter Review Commission is unanimous in its belief that the time has come to join other major U.S. cities that pay their elected representatives. Commission members will make their case to City Council at the regular B Session on Wednesday, which is open to the public, but draws far fewer citizens because all votes are taken in the A Sessions held on Thursdays.
The commission will recommend paying council members an annual salary of $45,722, the current San Antonio median family income, according to the U.S. Census. The mayor would earn an annual salary of $61,725, the median family income plus 35%.
If the council votes to put the issue on the May 9 ballot and voters approve it, it will be the first pay increase given to local officeholders in more than 60 years. Citizens are encouraged to express their views during the Citizens to be Heard session held Wednesday at 6 p.m., or by sending an email to Charter.Review@sanantonio.gov.
Many agree Council members deserve to be paid for what has become a full-time job. Paying a living wage also opens up the candidate pool to San Antonians that otherwise cannot afford to run for a job that pays a meager $20 a week, a tradition that dates to a time when a tight coterie of city fathers controlled who held office, and many of those selected were business owners or executives who could afford to serve on a part-time basis without compensation. The mayor is paid $20 a week, plus an annual $3,000 stipend. That comes to $77.69 a week. The pay has not changed since the current City Charter was drafted in 1951.
Putting a dollar amount on a “living wage” and how that pay would increase over time is a more contentious issue. The Commission will recommend a second ballot item asking voters to vote yes or no on incremental pay increases once every 10 years that would track median family income as measured by new U.S. Census figures. Earlier, commission members had discussed pay increases every election cycle equal to the rise in the consumer price index (CPI), with a 2.5% cap.
“The concept of automatic pay raises strikes a fear (in people),” said commission member Jeff Webster, who served on City Council from 1995-99. “People are more comfortable with a bigger gap of time.”
A separate ballot item means that the Council – and ultimately voters – can vote on paying Council members and the mayor without having to agree on the mechanism that increases that pay.
There are other ways to calculate what Council should be paid, said commission member Patricia Rodriguez, the designated municipal finance expert who led the compensation subcommittee. Using the median family income number seemed to be the most fair – and the mostly likely to be accepted by voters.
Another, less scientific, option presented by the subcommittee was to average out what “peer cities” in Texas pay their councils. That approach would have resulted in $55,990 salaries for Council members and a $72,390 salary for the mayor. A third option was to pay them the same as county commissioners, who earn annual salaries of more than $107,000.
Some commission members suggested presenting Mayor Taylor and City Council with all three options, but ultimately everyone agreed it was the commission’s responsibility to come up with a single recommendation. That decision also reflected the view of some commission members that any sitting Council member who voted for the highest option might be punished by voters.
In the end, it was decided the lowest of the three options would be most palatable to voters, and thus to Mayor Taylor and city Council, too.
“This is a very modest number,” commission member Barratachea said of the average median income. “They could choose a lower number, but never could recommend a higher number … we’re setting the bar lower than what I would feel comfortable with. (Council members) should make a little bit more money – what they deserve.”
Barratachea voted against the median income rate at first. After further committee discussion, she voted yes.
The Commission also is recommending an amendment that would ask voters to change the way vacant Council seats are filled. Under the current charter, if it’s within 270 days (nine months) of the end of that member’s term, that seat is filled by a majority vote of the City Council. Commission members agreed that period is too long and will recommend Wednesday that it be shortened to 120 days (four months). Click here to view the draft ordinance.
“That’s nine months without a publicly elected official,” said Commission Chair Charles Cottrell. “(This recommendation) not only gets the vacancy filled properly with an election sooner, it also it somewhat simplifies the process.”
This process took place during summer 2014 when former Mayor Julián Castro left and interim Mayor Ivy Taylor was selected by City Council to assume the position. Th decision came only after two rounds of open, somewhat awkward voting in which Councilmembers Ray Lopez and Ron Nirenberg sought the appointment.
Had this new process been in place when Castro left town, for example, voters would have voted on mayor on the Nov. 4 ballot last year.
While the idea of changing term limits to two, four-years terms as considered to reduce the time and money spent on campaigning and elections every two years, the Commission decided not to recommend that change. The report will include a recommendation that the issue be explored in the future.
“It was not part of our charge to make a recommendation on that,” Cottrell said after the meeting. “This committee remains intact at least until the (May 9 election) and we could take up again. We have not finished studying the implications of term limit changes (and election staggering).”
While the Commission will present single recommendations on both compensation-related ballot items, the written report will include research and conclusions on other options that were considered. This will allow the mayor and Council members to see how recommendations were made. The Council could decide to reject or change the commission’s recommendations.
The Commission also will recommend several adjustments be made to more than 20 sections in the City’s Charter, removing outdated language and provisions that have since been superseded by state law. Click here for draft list of revisions.
The Commission was established last August. Members were appointed by Mayor Taylor: seven community members, two former elected City officials, one former City employee, and three individuals with expertise in municipal law, human resources management, and municipal finance. Click here to see a full list of members.
*Featured/top image: San Antonio City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.