A former member of the Spokane City Council is leading an initiative to permanently limit the salaries of its current and future members.
Mike Allen has launched a voter initiative that would amend the City Charter to cap the salaries of Spokane City Council members at the city’s median household income.
Allen filed the requisite paperwork with the Spokane City Clerk to begin the process last month. After review by city attorneys, Allen expects to begin to collect signatures to place the proposal on the November ballot.
Though a debate over dollars and cents on its surface, the initiative is just the latest iteration of a yearslong, recurring debate over what role the City Council should play in city government and whether those elected to it should work full or part time.
The dispute dates back to at least 2001, when voters transitioned city government from having a city manager to a “strong mayor.” Since then, Allen said, the council has steadily grown its influence and disregarded the will of voters.
“We’ve had this mission creep within the council from where we started 20 years ago that has changed the government structure of the city without the citizens weighing in on it,” Allen said.
If approved by voters, Allen’s proposal would limit biannual salary increases for council members to the annual rate of inflation, as determined by the consumer price index. Their salaries could never exceed the city’s median household income, which was $52,447 in 2019, according to city-data.com.
The salary of the council president, the only member elected citywide, would be set at 30% more than the other members.
Under the current system, salaries of council members and the mayor are reviewed every two years by the Salary Review Commission. Its members are nominated by the mayor and appointed by the City Council.
In 2020, the Salary Review Commission voted to keep council salaries flat at $46,700 in 2020 and raise them by 2% in 2022. The council president currently earns $62,000.
In its survey of other cities last year, the Salary Review Commission found that Spokane is dwarfed by the $129,686 salaries earned by Seattle City Council members, but fared better among comparable cities – Tacoma, for example, paid its council members $44,990.40.
City Council members make significantly more today than they did a decade ago. In 2016, the Salary Review Commission rewarded members with a $14,000 a year raise, an increase of 44%.
Still, several council members advocated for salary increases last year when it was time for the Salary Review Commission to weigh in.
It’s a debate more on principle than practicality, as the difference of a few thousand dollars in a City Council members’ salary is largely inconsequential to the city’s nearly $1 billion budget and would have little impact on the average taxpayer.
So, should a term on the City Council be seen as a side hustle? Or should it be a full-time, professional commitment?
Allen believes voters should be asked to help answer that question, although he acknowledges his current initiative doesn’t do that. In 2014, Allen and fellow council member Steve Salvatori pushed for an advisory vote, but the effort was quashed by their colleagues.
Allen, who was appointed to the council for a partial term in 2007, lost an election bid in 2009 and then won a full term in 2011. He watched as council members began to take on more committee roles.
“I don’t know that I have a dog in a fight, I just think it is really important for the citizens to have some say in the government,” Allen said. “When I got on council in 2008, the policy and understanding was the initial intent was for us to be citizen legislators on the council. It was only when this recent crop came in, in 2010, they decided to change the government format.”
Allen, like former Mayor David Condon on his way out of office in 2019, has criticized the current council for expanding the scope of its office. The council’s budget was $629,962 in 2011; in 2021 that number had grown to $2.2 million.
Current City Council members argue that the job is clearly a full-time one, and they’ve written it into the council rules. Many believe that limiting the salary will limit the pool of people who want – or are financially able – to run for office.
“Those in their prime earning years are not going to forgo a livable wage and future pension package to serve for four to eight years as a council member. The current salary is below Spokane’s livable wage for a single person,” Councilwoman Lori Kinnear told the Salary Review Commission last year.
City Councilwoman Candace Mumm argues the demands of a council member require at least 40 hours a week, and that’s the level of commitment the community expects.
“I served with Mike Allen, and Mike treated that job as a part-time job, and the rest of us had to pick up the slack,” Mumm said.
Allen rejects that assertion, and countered if Mumm is so confident of the community’s expectations she should endorse an advisory vote on the subject.
Councilman Michael Cathcart also wants voters to decide whether the council should be full or part time, and believes there shouldn’t be any raises until then.
Former Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan said he dedicated more than 40 hours a week to the job, but doesn’t feel like council members should expect to get paid like it’s a full-time gig. He also described the current salaries as “fair” and was one of the few to speak out against the raises in 2016.
“You don’t run for and get elected to office based on the salary,” Fagan said, adding he ran to give back to the community and candidates should be willing to “put your private life on hold for whatever term it’s going to be.”
After its review by the city’s legal department, which helps ensure the initiative’s legal validity and clarity, the proposed measure will head to the City Council.
The council can endorse the proposal and adopt it into law, reject it and propose a different law on the same subject, or accept the petition and pass it along to voters for a decision. If the council does nothing, the initiative will go to the city hearing examiner, who will determine its legality.
If approved, Allen and his supporters can begin to collect signatures. For the initiative to appear on the ballot, the number of signatures must be greater than 5% of the number of votes cast in the most recent general municipal election. Based on the 2019 election, that number would be 3,477 signatures.
Allen has until June 7 to collect signatures to be placed on the ballot.