As the San Antonio City Council finished approving pay raises and bonuses for City Manager Sheryl Sculley Thursday, a public discussion about how much to pay City Council members was held at the UTSA College of Public Policy.
Sculley’s raise will equate to almost twice what the entire Council is paid for the year and, with her bonuses, will make in two years the equivalent of 7 terms of the entire city council.
Before anyone gets too excited about Sculley’s salary and bonuses, that’s how our city government is structured, as a Council-Manager form of government. According to the National League of Cities, in that form the “city council oversees the general administration, makes policy, sets budget” and the “council appoints a professional city manager to carry out day-to-day administrative operations.”
Thursday in The Rivard Report, Robert Rivard provided even more justification for Sculley’s salary and bonuses, noting the excellent fiscal position she has put the city in during her tenure in San Antonio. With regards to her performance, Rivard said “What you pay will be repaid many, many times over.”
With that in mind, Dr. Francine Romero’s Contemporary Issues in Public Administration class undertook a project to have a public discussion on the issue of council pay. As you might recall from a prior article I wrote on the issue, San Antonio’s City Council is one of the lowest in the nation and the lowest in Texas for major urban cities.
A few weeks ago, the class hosted a public roundtable discussion where members of the community engaged in table discussion and a series of polls. From that discussion, members generally felt that a “salary level supported was around city median,” and that more public dialogue is needed on the matter.
Thursday, the class hosted a public forum discussion with several community leaders. Moderated by class member Christopher Stewart, the panel included former District 7 City Councilwoman Elena Guajardo, political consultant Christian Archer, Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia, and Republican activist Weston Martinez.
Most on the panel advocated for increasing pay levels for council members. Martinez disagreed, advocating more for a citizen servant role of council members. “We need servant leaders. We need people who are going to be statesmen and I think we have to try everything we can to produce that environment,” said Martinez.
Garcia made a comparison between City Council and the Bexar County Commissioners Court, where pay exceeds $100,000. Noting the disparity in pay, Garcia talked about those who’ve served in both roles.
“They always say, 'I worked a lot harder on council than I did when I worked with the county. I got $20 week on council and get $100,000 a year with the county.' Something’s wrong with that picture,” said Garcia.
When asked about the council pay proposal floated by former Mayor Ed Garza that failed by a 2 to 1 margin, Guajardo talked about the difference in approaches between Garza (2001-2005) and former Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-2009), who was able to pass an extension to term limits. Hardberger, she said, knew the timing was right for the issue and also made sure no current or former council member would benefit from the extension.
“What I loved about serving with Mayor Hardberger was that he didn’t have anything to gain. It was about public service …What is best now for the city,” said Guajardo.
Archer echoed that sentiment and said that confidence in city government had grown since the days of scandal. One key message that helped win the term limits battle, Archer said, was that citizens knew they could vote a member out in two years.
Martinez said low council pay prevents the rise of a political aristocracy at city hall. He worries that higher council pay will disconnect elected officials from constituents.
He was the only panelist to defend the status quo. Others felt that an annual salary in $50,000 range would be acceptable. Guajardo speculated about having pay similar to the poverty level of a family of four, which comes to about $24,000 a year.
The bigger question is how to move such an initiative forward. While there was some discussion about whether it should come from council or from the citizens, timing is everything when considering such a change to the city charter.
Texas Election Code permits municipal elections twice a year, in May and November. The last time this initiative was put before the voters was in a special election in May 2004, with a dismal 7 % voter turnout. Anyone who follows Texas elections knows that the lower the turnout, the more conservative the electorate.
Mayor Hardberger understood this and made sure the term limits initiative was set for the November 2008 general election. With a hotly contested presidential race also on the ballot, the initiative passed by just over 3%.
Archer, who ran the term limits campaign and several bond initiatives, said the best date for likely passage would be the November 2016 general election. That election will come during Mayor Julián Castro's fourth and last term, should he seek re-election one more time. Just as changing term limits was the crowning achievement for Mayor Hardberger, this could be a similar achievement for Mayor Castro.
Right now, making such a change isn’t on anyone’s agenda, must less the mayor’s. But talking about it doesn’t do any harm.
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.