The newly empaneled Charter Revision Commission begins its regular meetings this week examining a host of city issues that may be shaped in the form of a question for city voters to decide, presumably in the November general election. Should the question of compensating City Council members be placed on the ballot?
Phil Smith, who served as the key staff person overseeing a number of Bridgeport charter revision questions through the years, says he believes the charter already gives the council the power to set salaries, even their own, through ordinance.
Section 7. Salaries of elected officials.
(a) The city council, by ordinance, shall have the power and authority to determine and change the salaries or other compensation of all elected officials of the city.
Council members currently access a $9,000 stipend in lieu of an actual salary that generally covers associated expenses such as travel, gas, cell phone, laptop, etc. Some council members have donated a portion of their stipends for community causes while others have used it to cover a cocktail or two or three, but who’s counting.
Many council members through the years have spent 10 or 20 hours a week on constituent work, resolutions, ordinances and some committee co-chairs even more particularly during the budget-making process. The practice of the current stipend amount began under Mayor Joe Ganim in the mid-1990s, in lieu of an actual council salary, because it was believed a charter change was required per advice of City Attorney Mark Anastasi. A number of council members had reasoned it was costing them money to serve on the 20-member legislative body thus the need to increase the stipend.
Phil Smith adds, “establishing a specific salary through charter revision would have one advantage: it would take a charter change to increase it.”
What’s a reasonable salary structure for council members? Let’s say $20,000 a year is fair. A charter question, according to Smith, would go like this …
Should the City Charter be amended to establish a salary of $20,000 for City Council members?
Smith says the charter revision commission could also eliminate the dollar figure to leave it an open question for the council to set the salary, if passed by voters.
Former City Councilman Bob “Troll” Walsh has argued against paying council members, but the Troll adds he could swallow it if it keeps city employees from serving on the council, an issue he says leads to conflict of interest. It could prevent double dipping.
Walsh, at a public hearing last week before the charter commission, argued against compensating council members, but he added this point. “However, if a council member is to be paid, then clearly you can impose a rule prohibiting an individual from holding two jobs with the city.”
So what say you? Would compensating City Council members lead to quality candidates?