SLO council gives itself a raise — with Mayor Heidi Harmon getting the biggest boost

San Luis Obispo City Council members Andy Pease, Dan Rivoire, (Mayor) Heidi Harmon, Carlyn Christianson and Aaron Gomez (from left to right).
San Luis Obispo City Council members Andy Pease, Dan Rivoire, (Mayor) Heidi Harmon, Carlyn Christianson and Aaron Gomez (from left to right). jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Saying the compensation to serve on the San Luis Obispo City Council doesn't match the responsibilities or make it easy to attract working-class representatives, the council voted Tuesday to give the mayor a 15 percent pay increase and the rest of its members a 2 percent bump.

Council members voted 4-1, with Dan Rivoire dissenting, to increase the mayor's monthly pay by $225 — from $1,500 to $1,725 — bringing the position's annual pay to $20,700.

Council members noted Heidi Harmon's duties far exceed her pay, and a boost would better help compensate the mayor for the tasks of the role.

The other four council members will receive a $24-per-month bump from $1,200 to $1,224, bringing their annual compensation to $14,688.

The raise increases the amount the city spends monthly on council compensation from $6,300 to $6,621.

Harmon said the council should consider future generations of public servants, not just the current one, noting the increase represents a "miniscule" portion of the city's budget, which is $142 million this year for all funds.

"When I think of my role in particular, and look across the landscape of this community, I have a really difficult time thinking of candidates who come to mind who I'd reach out to, knowing that a lot of the people who I'd think would be wonderful in the role are limited because of this very reason (compensation), and that really decreases the lack of diversity, and especially the diversity of thought," Harmon said.

Before the vote, the council considered an across-the-board increase of 10 percent, based on the outside recommendation of a compensation committee made up of five representatives, including a former city council member, city Personnel Board member and three citizens.

But the council opted to allocate most of the pay increase to the mayoral position, saying its duties are similar to a full-time job.

Council members attend regional committee meetings on such topics as finance, transportation and water, outside of their council service, and often are contacted by members of the public on a variety of city matters.

city council
The San Luis Obispo City Council.

In addition to the expected policy research, guidance and public outreach, some of Harmon's initiatives have included walks with community members in neighborhoods to address questions and concerns, community potlucks and "pop-up democracy" meetings with residents on topics such as cannabis and homelessness.

"As much as it's a difficult conversation when you look at percentages of pay increases, the basic numbers are the basic numbers," Councilman Aaron Gomez said. "As it is, we're working for below minimum wage. What we have now is a unique scenario (a working class council). We easily could go back into an independently wealthy or retired council."

Gomez said he spends more time on council work than he does running his jewelry business, which provides his living. Councilwoman Andy Pease has cut back on her work as an architect, she said.

Acknowledging that Harmon takes on more than her fair share, Rivoire said he'd be more comfortable asking voters to decide whether to support a compensation policy similar to one in Santa Barbara, where council members are paid the area's median income.

"This is a challenging policy decision that I've thought about a lot," Rivoire said. "I struggle with it tremendously. As someone who has worked full-time during my council term, I know it's barely possible."

Critics of the pay hike, however, said the council shouldn't be approving raises considering an $8.9 million gap the city is trying to make up because of pension cost shortfalls.

The city also considered asking voters to approve a 1 percentage point sales tax increase to help pay for $440 million in infrastructure costs over the next 20 years, but it delayed the decision to better formulate its proposal, possibly to be put before voters in 2020.

"I would say it's very irresponsible to say the least," city resident Jeffrey Specht said. "If anything, I believe being a good role model, stepping up to bat and taking a 10 percent decrease would be more appropriate."

In addition to the council raises, the Planning Commission and Architectural Review Commission received increases of $10 per meeting.