By Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
In the recent discussions over how much our elected leaders should be paid, there has been a missing element that is made even more conspicuous by the decision to pay the newly created council president $40,000 a year. That missing piece is what to do about the rest of the council, which is currently remunerated at $18,000 a head per year.
If the old saw that you get what you pay for has any application to local politics, then the city should study whether to increase that amount. But any time you talk about raising the pay of politicians, you're bound to get a rise out of the electorate, so such a move must be carefully considered and enacted for good reason.
And there are plenty of good reasons. To begin with, is it fair to raise the council president to the level of full-time without doing so for the rest? Sure, the council president is expected to shoulder more duties, but don't all the people out in the districts deserve the same level of representation and attention? The council president represents all citizens and will be elected at large, but the other six council members, who will be elected by district, are bound to pay more attention to localized issues. Would those issues get less attention than those championed by the council president?
Most council members will tell you that in the Spokane of the year 2000, being a council member is already a full-time job (with overtime). Perhaps in the 1960s and '70s, when Spokane was a less complicated place with challenges that had simpler solutions, part-time council members were more than enough. But today, in a city that is swimming upstream against just about every issue it faces, from economic development to growth management to seemingly simple questions of infrastructure, Spokane clearly needs all the help it can get.
This has become even more clear in the past couple decades, when the shortcomings of a part-time council have become most clear in issues like the Lincoln Street Bridge, which no single part-time council member could ever defuse, and the River Park Square parking garage, where, it appears, a part-time council was ground into submission by its partner (made up of full-time consultants, lawyers, etc.). This is not to say that a full-time council would have averted these and other disasters, but at least the citizenry would know that their elected officials were expected to devote their full attention to the city's business.
Some of the typical opposition that comes with attempting to upgrade a city council to full time is the fear that you will inspire people to run for office who just want a paycheck, or that you will create a class of politicians, something antithetical to those who cling to the Founding Fathers' nostalgic notion of citizen legislators who do their civic duty and then hurry back to the fields. It's true that some will run for office just for the money, but that is what elections are for: to separate the real leaders from the chaff. And as for the creation of a small class of professional politicians, what's so bad about that? The community needs more opportunities, not less, for dedicated, bright people to devote their energies to their neighborhoods, their city and beyond.
Finally, the changing face of local government may call for higher pay to bring enough qualified candidates out. In other cities that have switched to strong mayor, the experience has been that the types of candidates that had held city council positions before the changeover have stopped running. In Albuquerque, for instance, after the change, the attorneys and business people who had held the part-time positions gave way to neighborhood activists. Will Spokane's three districts produce the kinds of candidates that are needed to meet the challenges ahead? It's hard to imagine, but it's possible that $18,000 a year will no longer be enough to attract any candidates to an often thankless and always tiring job.
Much has been made lately of the strong mayor's salary. But more important to the success of the next administration will be the salary paid to the city manager that the strong mayor will hire to be his right-hand man or woman. While strong mayors run for a lot of reasons, including money, city managers are attracted primarily by the money and, often, the challenge of the position (not a problem here). The strong mayor's success will hinge on bringing in an innovative, collaborative professional city manager to Spokane. The question of whether the current council has the power to change the strong mayor's salary from what the initiative stated seems clear: If they can change the council president's salary from what people voted on, as they did this week, they could lower the strong mayor's salary from $109,000. It's an issue that is complicated by the fact that many voters felt they were voting for a position that paid $80,000 -- the only figure cited in the ordinance.
The controversy over the council changing salaries set by public vote for these positions underlines how important the process will be to the discussion about raising the rest of the council's salary. What should council members be paid? What do other cities pay their council members? How does the issue of adding more dedicated staff to work for the council members fit into the debate? These and other issues will need to be properly aired before the citizens will support the change.
These debates over what the strong mayor and the council president should be paid also underline the fear that often characterizes local politics: that government just keeps getting more and more expensive. This is a rational fear, but it is often badly misplaced. Take roads, for example: If the city fails to invest in local infrastructure (as we have been doing for too long for a variety of complicated reasons), sure, it saves money. But it also creates a balloon payment that comes due someday. Elected officials can be viewed in similar terms for the decisions they make. While investing in decision-making may cost more in the short term, wise decisions that result from that investment should save the city more money in the long run. So, yes, bringing local government into the 21st century will be expensive (not in the grand scheme of a $350-million annual budget, but expensive enough), but it also promises more efficient government. There's no guarantee, of course, but it puts the city in the best possible position to succeed.
And timing is important, as new council members will be elected in 2001. Since sitting members wouldn't be affected by any pay increases (they can't vote themselves a raise), if the effort is completed within a year, it could apply to the next wave of City Council members -- the first to be elected by district. And, hopefully, the first to be paid a salary that reflects the demands of the job and the responsibility the citizens expect. F