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Editorial: Let voters decide if council positions should be full time

Spokane City Council personnel costs have almost doubled over the last decade. Two proposed salary advisories are an opportunity to reassess how much residents expect of their representatives, and what they might pay to have those expectations met.

Council members Mike Allen and Steve Salvatori are calling for two votes: one for a full-time council president, the other for full-time council members. The city charter requires the mayor be full time, but is silent on the time council members must dedicate to representing their constituents.

Most put in long hours attending council meetings and working with community groups. Salary increases approved last week by the Salary Review Commission will bring member compensation up to $31,200 a year. The council president, who has extra responsibilities, will receive $57,200.

They also get travel and phone allowances.

The pay is about midrange for cities considered comparable by Greater Spokane Incorporated. Albuquerque, N.M., for example, pays its nine part-time councilors $17,500 ($19,500 for the president), and Reno, Nev., gives its seven part-timers almost $68,000.

Pay increases have been relatively modest. Most of the increase in council costs stems from a staff that has ballooned from a single, full-time assistant for all seven council members to one for each member, each with a salary of $34,000, plus benefits.

Members say the assistants are necessary for tasks like scheduling because of the increased demands on their time, and to provide independent research.

Allen and Salvatori, who opposed full-time assistants, do not question the commitment made by their fellow council members. Both say the citizens they work with seem to expect a full-time commitment.

The advisories, which a majority of the council must agree to put on the November ballot, would provide clarification.

On the executive side of city government, Mayor David Condon has been restructuring departments and seeking council relief from civil service rules as part of the process. The result, so far, has been a more efficient executive branch.

Salvatori calls the bulking up of the council staff a response “mission creep.” If that’s what voters want, he says, let them say so.

Neither he nor Allen would run for council if it was full time, and that suggests the implications of whatever choice voters might make if the council gives them the chance.

Our Congress was once part time, and our Legislature continues to be so, as does the council. Would full-time positions attract more candidates with professional credentials, or professional politicians? Would they need full-time staff? Will citizens have less access or more?

The City Council has itself become a much more effective branch of government in recent years. Members are qualified and cooperative. They can speak to the demands of their office as well as anyone.

A conversation about government, executive or legislative, is always worth having. Let’s see what citizens expect.


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