What would it cost?

Chicoans want good leaders but won’t pay the price

In 1994, Chicoans voted on a ballot measure that would have increased city councilmembers’ compensation from a meager $15 per council meeting, a figure first set way back in 1960, to $400 per month, an amount in line with council compensation in other cities of Chico’s size. Voters didn’t just reject it, they diced it and sliced it, with 70 percent voting no.

In recent years councilmembers have found a way to bring in a few more dollars. With formation of the city’s Redevelopment Agency in the 1980s, they became the agency’s directors, for which they are paid an additional $30 per meeting when the agency meets, which is prior to nearly every regular council meeting. Still, on an hourly basis they are earning less than minimum wage.

Chicoans are not alone in wanting their elected officials to sacrifice for their sakes. In Sacramento, Mayor Heather Fargo works more than 40 hours a week leading one of California’s largest cities, for which she earns around $30,000 a year, all if it from stipends she receives from attending meetings, including redevelopment agency meetings. To make ends meet, she continues to work half time as a supervisor at the state Parks and Recreation Department.

Ironically, her job includes overseeing a full-time staff of four, all of whom make more than she does.

The days when being a councilmember meant coming to one meeting a week ended decades ago. Today’s councilmembers attend many meetings—of subcommittees and affiliated agencies as well as the council and redevelopment agencies—in addition to dealing with constituents and otherwise doing their jobs. They put in at least 20 hours a week, and often more, for which they receive their small stipends plus health insurance.

As Dan Herbert notes, he’s already devoting about 25 hours a week to being mayor. Any more than that, and he’d have to reconsider the job. He simply doesn’t have time to make a living, be a good husband and father of three, and work full time as mayor. Nobody does, he says.

If the mayor’s job were to become an elected position, with the goal that the mayor be a more visible and proactive community leader, it would have to pay more, Herbert says. It would have to pay enough to allow someone like him to cut back considerably at his job or business.

At the same time, notes Chuck Dalldorf, chief of staff to Fargo, it’s not good to have the mayor earning significantly more than the other councilmembers. Reasonable parity should exist to prevent resentment.

Ultimately, Chicoans are going to have to accept the fact that today’s councilmembers work extremely hard and agree to pay them more. The unreasonable level of compensation already is significantly narrowing the pool of qualified candidates for public office, and it’s not going to get any better.

It’s a symbolic thing. The amount of money we’re talking about is a small fraction of 1 percent of the city’s $41.5 million annual budget. But voters cling to the image of citizen legislators who serve out of good will, not for money.

It’s a nice image, but it’s out of date and unfair. It’s unreasonable to ask people to interrupt their lives and then pay for it out of their own pockets. Not with the amount of work the job requires.