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Thursday, October 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Time to reassess city government

Spokane City Council is getting a 44 percent pay increase, and that’s not an April Fool’s joke.

Before reacting, the public should assess the scope of the job and put its pay in historical perspective. In 1991, the salary was $18,000 a year. As it was in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 … all the way up to 2008. Because of inflation, that $18,000 in 1991 was worth less than $12,000 in 2007.

Sound about right?

The City Council was afraid to raise the salary for fear of public backlash, so pay eroded for 16 years, making it a less attractive job. The Salary Review Commission was formed to take the decision out of council hands.

In 2008, the commission used comparable data from other cities to raise the salary from $18,000 to $30,000, or about what it would’ve been had it kept pace with inflation. But, of course, there’s another way to look at it: That’s a 40 percent increase! And that’s what we hear with the latest hike.

The relevant number is $45,100. Is that an appropriate amount for the six people who form the legislative branch of city government? The council president, Ben Stuckart, will be paid $58,630, after getting a smaller raise. These seven council members form the counterbalance to the mayor, who makes $168,000, after the commission cut his pay by 6 percent last year.

But that still isn’t the entire story. When council pay was increased in 2008, each member was also allowed to hire a part-time assistant. Then the position became full-time.

Under its latest deliberations, the Salary Review Commission interviewed some council members, asking them how many hours they worked. At least 40 hours a week, they said. Often more. They sit on multiple boards and have taken on more duties over the years. They’re making more community appearances, too.

When the city switched to a strong-mayor form of government, swapping a professional, unelected city manager for an elected chief executive, the role of the council wasn’t explicitly spelled out. As the mayor’s position grew stronger, so did the council’s.

Now it appears as if the Salary Review Commission is treating it like a full-time position.

In adopting the strong-mayor government, did voters voters expect council jobs to remain part-time or become full-time as a check against executive power? It’s impossible to determine past wishes, but the city can assess the public’s current view.

As criticism over the pay bump grows, the council may consider asking voters whether their jobs should be full-time or part-time.

If full-time, current pay is not unreasonable, and it will draw a deeper pool of candidates. If part-time, duties and pay inevitably would be slashed. Council services would diminish, and some members might leave for better-paying jobs.

The balance of power would shift to the mayor’s office. At which point, citizens may want to reconsider their strong-mayor vote.

Now that we’ve seen how this form of government has evolved and missions have expanded, maybe it’s time to decide whether it’s been an improvement.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”

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