– Should Portland city councilors be paid more?
Pat Washburn has thought about running for Portland City Council, but when she considers the time she’d have to sacrifice from her day job, it doesn’t seem feasible.
“I should be taking too long out of my career to do a good job of listening to constituents, studying issues that come before the board and attending meetings,” said Washburn, who works as a technical writer for a cybersecurity. business. “You can’t just walk into meetings with general knowledge. You have to know what you are doing. »
The responsibilities of the position and the desire to attract applicants from all walks of life — including those who might not find the required work affordable — are why Washburn, who serves on the city’s Charter Commission, offered to increase the salaries of municipal councillors.
Councilors currently earn a stipend of $6,947 per year, plus benefits including health insurance, and have the ability to set their own salary as long as raises do not occur in the same municipal year. They are also eligible for annual increases in the cost of living, and a 2% or 3% increase is often considered during the year. budget process, said city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.
Washburn’s Proposal would set a new minimum for the allowance, raising it dramatically to a rate of 1.35 times the state or city minimum hourly wage, whichever is lower, multiplied by 20 hours per week for each week of mandate. At the current minimum wage of $12.75, this would translate to an annual allowance of approximately $17,900. Councilors could also refuse payment or set a higher allowance.
The proposal was approved 3-1 by the committee’s procedures committee on Feb. 8 and is currently being considered by the full committee. Any changes to city government that the commission ultimately recommends will need to be approved by voters to be enacted.
“The proposals presented to the city deal with major issues, complex issues involving finance, development and government – and I would like this to be recognized as work worth paying for, just like being a cook in a restaurant or run a store,” Washburn said.
Proponents of the wage increase say a higher annual allowance would better reflect the reality of the job – which can add up to 20 to 40 hours of work per week – and make it easier to access a longer roster. diversity of candidates for public office. Critics say serving as a councilor has always been a matter of civic duty, not pay, and the city has more pressing spending priorities.
WHAT ARE OTHER CITIES DOING?
Approaches to elected official compensation vary widely across the country. The National League of Cities, an advocacy group made up of municipal leaders, analyzed the pay of elected officials in 15 communities across seven states last summer in response to a debate in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, similar to that in Portland.
“We often get a question like this,” said league infrastructure manager James Brooks when asked how Portland’s board salaries compare to those in other cities. “Cities like to know where they are in terms of remuneration of their elected officials. There is no regular survey that tracks this, so most of them don’t have the data themselves.
The size of cities surveyed by the league ranged from DeSoto, Texas, with a population of 53,000, to Oklahoma City, with 643,900. Brockton, Massachusetts, with a population of 95,594, was the only New England town included in the league analysis.
The average salary of council members, aldermen and commissioners in the communities studied was $14,136. The maximum was $34,005 in Las Cruces, New Mexico (population 102,102), and the minimum was $2,700 in Victoria, Texas (population 67,670).
“There’s definitely no consistency,” Brooks said. “There’s very localized decision-making about what political office holders should do and how they should earn it, whether it’s a salary or a participation allowance etc. It doesn’t there is no uniformity, even within a state.”
Washburn said she also looked at other cities and found a wide range of pay rates and approaches.
She said she hasn’t looked at other communities in Maine since Portland stands out given its size. “I think in a smaller place it’s a lot easier to do it as volunteer work or semi-volunteer work that’s added to a full-time career,” Washburn said.
In Bangor, councilors earn $2,000 a year and the council president earns an additional $500. In Lewiston, counselors earn a $4,000 stipend.
THINK ABOUT EQUITY
While the Portland council already has the option of increasing its own salary, Washburn said there is a stigma attached to doing so. She said her proposal – coming from someone who is not on the board and does not plan to run – would make it easier for those who might be hesitant to run for financial reasons.
“I don’t want to create a princely salary that would attract people who just want money,” she said. “I just want to recognize that it’s work and it’s work worth paying for.”
When the Charter Commission’s procedures committee met last month to discuss the proposal, Commission President Michael Kebede, who voted in favour, agreed with Washburn that a larger allocation would facilitate the race of workers.
“I think the notion of unpaid civic duty is very noble – but when you work three jobs to feed multiple children, say, the nobility behind unpaid civic duty goes away,” Kebede said. “I think it’s a good way around the problem.”
He said elected officials in Maine in general are often paid less than in other states. Governor Janet Mills, for example, earns $70,000, which in 2020 was the lowest salary of any governor in the United States.
Brooks, of the National League of Cities, said he personally hasn’t done research on whether raising elected officials’ salaries increases diversity or makes it easier for workers to run for office. , but he pointed to a 2016 study by the American Political Scientific Review. The studywho examined state legislatures in the United States, found that working-class representation was the same or worse in states that paid higher salaries to lawmakers.
The study indicated that increasing legislative wages beyond $0 may make it easier for low-income people and workers to fill positions, but further increasing wages eventually makes the position more attractive to white-collar professionals.
“Higher wages do not seem to make political office more attractive to workers; they seem to make it more attractive to professionals who already earn high salaries,” the study authors wrote. “According to our data, paying politicians more does not appear to promote economic diversity.”
WHAT DO ADVISORS THINK?
Portland councilors had a wide range of opinions on the salary increase proposal. But they all agreed on one thing: they put in far more hours than the public probably realizes or imagined before they were elected.
Councilor April Fournier, an early childhood support specialist at Maine Medical Center’s pediatric clinic, said she spends 30 to 40 hours a week on council work between answering constituent emails, attending council meetings and workshops. committee and council and look for problems. She said she hadn’t seen the wording of the charter commission’s proposal but supported the spirit of the idea.
“When you say it’s a privilege (to be on the board) and you don’t need to be paid, you automatically exclude people who earn less than the median income,” Fournier said. “It’s not just about the council making more money, it’s about creating equity in this position so we can have greater representation of the people we serve.”
Councilor Pious Ali, who works for the nonprofit Portland Empowered, did not support the charter commission’s proposal, but said he trusted the commissioners to make a good decision and that he saw how increased compensation could be a benefit. “Across the country there is a movement trying to diversify the number of people from different backgrounds who will have the opportunity to serve,” Ali said. “One of the things that hinders them is their ability to support themselves while serving. Public service should not be the privilege of those who can afford it”.
“It’s too much money,” said Councilman Mark Dion, a lawyer and former sheriff, when asked about the commission’s proposal. He said he viewed the post as a civic duty and not a primary source of income. “I don’t know what to say other than going from $6,000 to $18,000, I couldn’t in good conscience argue for that,” Dion said. “We have people who don’t have a place to sleep tonight, but am I going to plead for my salary to be tripled? »
Councilor Tae Chong also said he thinks the money could be better spent on other things, such as the needs of the large number of homeless people the city is currently home to. “I just think it’s dishonest to say we care about the community and take money out of the most vulnerable, when there are people willing to volunteer,” said Chong, who works in as Director of Multicultural Markets and Strategies for Maine. State Chamber of Commerce.
Chong said the council, along with the school board and charter commission, is already diverse and includes people under 40, people of color and people who have never held office before. “To say that these barriers are so difficult when in reality it’s just the opposite, asking for more money or more layers of government, that’s just dishonest and wrong,” Chong said.
But Andrew Zarro, who is 33 and among the council’s youngest members, said balancing his roles as small business owner and elected official has not been easy. “How are we going to attract people even younger than me? Or a student? Or people who want to get involved and can contribute but ultimately need to be financially compensated for that hard work? Zaro said. “It’s not a part-time position. It couldn’t be further from that.