Having approved raises for most city workers over the past year, the Palo Alto City Council is now shifting its focus toward a group that hasn't seen a salary adjustment since 2001 -- the council itself.
Chair Gail Price and Councilman Larry Klein, who supported the increase, framed the issue as a way to encourage more residents to get involved in local governance. Klein cited a decline in candidates for the council and local commissions, arguing that the workload for council members has been increasing even as inflation has made the council's stipend less lucrative.
Running for the council still won't make anyone rich, Klein said, but the adjustment could help would-be candidates have enough money for child care or whatever resources they might need to accommodate the council workload, which he estimates takes up at least 25 to 30 hours a week. Raising salaries, he said, would be a "democratic move."
"I do want to (leave) our council open to as broad a group as we can," Klein said.
Price agreed and said she feels very strongly that raising council stipends is important way to give more people the opportunity to serve.
"We come from a variety of economic situations," Price said. "If people are interested in serving, some may or may not have circumstances that allow it."
The nature of the council's work, she said, requires significant time and attention, which makes it important "to make it at least somewhat possible for people who have fewer means to consider trying to do this work while trying to earn a living at the same time."
The proposal to raise compensation for council members came out of a colleagues memo penned by Mayor Liz Kniss, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Price, the same memo that also recommended extending term limits and cutting the number of council seats from nine to seven. On Monday night, the council agreed to pursue the latter proposal on the November ballot but balked on the former, with both decisions coming by a 5-4 vote. The issue of compensation was not considered on Monday night.
The June 2013 memo notes that the council's workload would only increase if voters agree to reduce council seats.
"In the event that council size is reduced, elected members would need to manage more liaison
positions, roles and appointments which will impact their ability to serve in time and quality," the memo reads. "Additionally, serving on the City Council demands a significant amount of time, including preparing and attending meetings, meeting with the community and attending events. We recommend that council discuss this impact, consider an increase to the $600 per month (plus benefits) stipend, to accommodate this possible change."
Scharff disagreed with his two colleagues and said he sees no reason to raise salaries at this time. Cities tend to stop giving raises when times are tough and to ramp up salaries and "take on long-term obligations" when times are good. The council, he said, should resist this temptation. The city is currently close to the middle when it comes to compensation, he said, which is "where we should be."
"Because times are good, that doesn't' mean we should necessarily have our handout," Scharff said.
He also noted that council members get health benefits, which should be considered as part of the compensation conversation.
"We moved to look at total compensation," Scharff said. "We asked our employees to look at total compensation. If we as council members don't look at total compensation ... I don't think we're being transparent."
If the council approves the committee's recommendation, members would see a raise for the first time since 2001. The current stipend of $600 a month places Palo Alto about $150 below average on a list of 36 jurisdictions surveyed by staff (this survey did not consider health care benefits). At the lowest end are cities like Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley, where council members get no stipends at all. At the other extreme are Sunnyvale ($2,194), Hayward ($2,082) and Daly City ($1,414). San Jose is the major outlier, with a monthly stipend of $6,760.
The issue of balancing council work with other jobs also came up during Monday night's discussion over Charter amendments, when Kniss took an impromptu survey and asked her colleagues how many of them have full-time jobs. Only Pat Burt and Marc Berman raised their hands. Kniss noted that when she was on the council in the 1990s, everyone had full-time jobs.
"I'm puzzled now that you feel like you need to have your own private resources or you need to be retired," Kniss said.
But Scharff said it's still possible to balance council duties with a regular job. In his first two years on the council, he said, he spent more than 50 hours a week on his law practice. These days, the number is closer to 30.
"I think you can work full-time and have a job on the council," Scharff said. "It just depends how much time you want to put into it."
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