SLO City Council job should be part-time

Is it time to make service on the SLO City Council a full-time job?

Councilwoman Kathy Smith raised the issue last week in a letter to the editor. Smith was responding to Councilman Andrew Carter’s decision to withdraw from the race for mayor, in part because of the financial hardship involved in devoting so many hours to what some consider a volunteer position. (The stipend for a City Council member is about $1,000 per month, though not all members take the full amount.)

Smith wrote: “I’m hoping we’ll be motivated to reassess our city governmental structure and decide what role an elected official is expected to fill. If we want part-time figureheads, I believe we’re well on the way to achieving such. If we want elected representatives reflecting voters’ views, I’m for considering full-time council members, paying a living wage, providing at least one staff person and functioning more like a Board of Supervisors.”

She closed by asking voters to share their thoughts.

Like Smith, we, too, were disappointed that Carter withdrew from the race for mayor. And we agree that serving as an elected official involves a financial sacrifice that not everyone is able to make.

But this is not the time to elevate the job of mayor and city council member to full-time, paid positions of, say, $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000 per year.

For one thing, the city is just now getting back on its financial feet. After four years of drastic budget cuts, this was the first year the city did not have to make further reductions, though it’s still around $4 million short of the money needed to maintain streets, sidewalks, parks and other facilities.

Also, we’re not convinced that a large pay raise would have the desired effect of increasing and diversifying the pool of qualified candidates.

Look at the SLO County Board of Supervisors. Despite the rate of pay —  $84,014 per year — there’s generally not a great deal of interest in running for office. This year, for example, there were no challengers for the seat held by Frank Mecham, and only two candidates in each of the two contested races.

Nor has the board been a model of diversity, especially of late. Since Shirley Bianchi stepped down in 2006, it’s been an all-male board, though that will change next year when Supervisor-Elect Debbie Arnold takes office.

Finally, there’s an issue of equity.

We’re grateful to San Luis Obispo City Council members for their dedication and hard work. But if they are deserving of a full salary, we’d better look at offering salaries to members of other local city councils as well.

And don’t forget the school board members — and for that matter, what about planning commissioners? We’re sure there are plenty of times when they work every bit as hard as the SLO City Council. And many — in fact, most — of them earn far less pay than SLO council members.

Perhaps there will come a point when our cities are so large or issues are so complex that it will require full-time councils to govern them.

Certainly, other midsize cities — Santa Barbara is one, Palm Springs another — offer salaries to their mayors and council members. (As of 2010, Santa Barbara paid its council members $40,000 per year, and in Palm Springs, salaries ranged between $27,000 and $32,000.)

But we don’t believe we’re there yet. So far, we’ve managed to attract candidates who are motivated to run because they want to make a difference — not because they want to earn a living. We see no reason to change now.