In the latest sign of the city's growing economic fortunes, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Tuesday night to raise the salaries of council members for the first time in more than 15 years.
By a 6-3 vote, with Greg Scharff, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth dissenting, the council agreed to raise the monthly stipend of its members from $600 to $1,000. The vote in favor of the salary raise came after several council members stressed the need to increase the pool of candidates seeking council seats. Increasing the stipends, the thinking goes, would help candidates who may not be affluent and who may need to pay for child care so that they can devote themselves to their council duties.
"I'm worried that now the public believes that in order to serve on the council you need to be retired, wealthy, self-employed or single," said Councilwoman Liz Kniss, the council's most fervent champion of the increase ("Or stupid," Councilman Marc Berman added as an aside).
Kniss, who raised the issue in a 2013 memo she co-authored with former council members Nancy Shepherd and Gail Price, framed council salaries as a gender issue. Kniss said that before the last council election, she had tried to find a woman who was willing to run for office and each said that she cannot spend the amount of time it would take to serve. Getting a babysitter in Palo Alto costs $20 to $25 an hour, she said, and many mothers said joining the council would be too costly a proposition.
Kniss also said she is troubled by the fact that a gender that makes up half the world's population has only two representatives on the current council (she and Mayor Karen Holman). The council had four female members last year, though that number dropped to two after Nancy Shepherd lost her bid for a second term and Gail Price opted not to run again. Lydia Kou, the only other female candidate in last year's 12-candidate race, was barely edged out for the fifth open seat by Cory Wolbach.
"The number of women shrinking in public office on the Peninsula is of such alarm that there are two or three organizations that are now addressing it," Kniss said. "I know it's very difficult for one to give oneself a raise. It's the kind of thing we stay away from like a hot flame, and yet I'd urge you to think about this carefully tonight before you vote."
Some of her colleagues strongly disputed the idea that the 66 percent raise has anything to do with gender equality. They agreed, however, that it would make it easier for some of the less affluent members of the community to seek council seats.
Councilman Pat Burt, who voted to support the raise, called the move "a modest step to democratize further City Council participation."
"It's not a big step but it moves in that direction," Burt said.
He also predicted that the move will have "virtually no impact on gender, particularly on the council."
"It's not about promoting gender participation or greater gender equality, which I think is something we should do," Burt said. "I just don't think this has diddly to do with it."
The best thing to do for those who want to see a greater female presence on the council is to "support female candidates when they run."
Berman, like Burt, said he didn't have particularly strong feelings about the salary hikes but went along with the majority. While Councilman Greg Scharff warned that this would send the wrong message to the labor unions who are also seeking salary increases, Berman said that raising council salary "to minimum wage" makes sense. He characterized the move as a small step in the right direction.
"If any labor group says they want to get a minimum wage like the City Council, I'll say, 'Done. Sign on the dotted line,'" Berman said.
The council vote came three months after Mountain View adopted a similar increase for its council members. But while Mountain View left the decision to the voters, Palo Alto achieved the change through a council ordinance. Council members are allowed by law to increase their salaries by 5 percent for every year since their last salary increase. Because the council's last salary bump came in May 2001, members could have approved an increase of up to 75 percent. The salary increase will take effect in January 2017.
Even with the change, Palo Alto remains in the middle of the regional pack when it comes to council salaries. At the higher end of the scale are cities like Sunnyvale, where a council member earns $2,194 a month, and Daly City, where the monthly stipend is $1,414. At the lower end are Saratoga ($250 a month), Los Gatos ($150 a month) and Monte Sereno (no salaries at all).
Scharff maintained that the council's salary is symbolic and that raising it so significantly just because the economy is improving will make it hard for the council to have the "moral high ground" when employees likewise request raises.
"Now that we're in the up years, we get a lot of pressure to raise wages for employees," Scharff said. "Everyone comes in and wants 5 to 10 percent raises."
He also rejected Kniss' assertion that the move has anything to do with gender or that it will result in more women running for council, prompting Kniss to respond, "That's because you're a guy, Greg."
"(I) think is somewhat demeaning to men," Scharff countered.
Filseth sided with Scharff about the "cosmetics" and "symbolism" of the council increase, though he agreed with Kniss that the current council compensation limits the pool size for candidates and that this is a "significant problem."
"However, I think going from $600 to $1,000 a month is not likely to make a significant difference in that pool size," Filseth said. "I think a discussion of a much larger change that would increase the pool size is a legitimate discussion, but that's not what's on the table tonight."
Several council members said they were ambivalent about the issue before casting their votes. Councilman Cory Wolbach said his support for the salary increase had always been contingent on last November's passage of Measure D, which reduced the council's size from nine to seven members, effective 2019. With the measure passing, Wolbach backed the salary hike.
"I see with the reduction of the council size, it does mean more work for all council members," Wolbach said. "I think it increases the demand and I think it's appropriate to have an increase in salary to coincide with that."
DuBois also said he wasn't sure which way he would go but was ultimately swayed by the arguments of Scharff and Filseth.
"I think the symbolism is bad," DuBois said. "The reason we all do this is community service."
Holman took the opposite stance and voted in favor of the salary increase. You never know, she said, what it takes to sway someone to run.
"It's a public service, it's a community service, but it shouldn't be a hardship," Holman said.