The Municipal Plaza Building at Main Plaza.

The Charter Review Commission completed three months of work with its formal presentation to City Council Wednesday, recommending the first significant charter changes in more than half a century, including professional salaries for the mayor and council members.

The Council is expected to officially endorse the proposed charter amendments on Feb. 26, thus putting the changes in the hands of San Antonio citizens who vote in the May 9 city elections.

The commission explored a wide range of updates, including the procedure for filling a mayoral vacancy, amending term limits, and cleaning up obsolete and superseded rules. Those issues aside, the matter of replacing token honoraria with professional salaries – even relatively modest salaries  – has received the most attention from committee members and the council.

The prevailing view among individuals who support more than token compensation is that the city’s officeholders devote long hours and can’t serve as effective public servants and hold other full-time jobs. There are some, however, who believe public service should not be compensated.

Charles Cotrell, chair of the Charter Review Commission, makes opening remarks to the City Council on Wednesday before the commission formally presented its recommendations for charter amendments. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Charles Cotrell, chair of the Charter Review Commission, makes opening remarks to the City Council on Wednesday before the commission formally presented its recommendations for charter amendments. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Charter Review Commission Chairman Charles Cotrell, the retired president of St. Mary’s University and a respected civil rights leader, explained that Austin, Fort Worth and El Paso all pay their elected officials. Dallas is set to increase pay for its mayor and council higher pay beginning in June.

The commission proposed raising the mayor’s compensation from $4,040 per year to $61,725 a year, and council member pay from $1,040 to $45,722.

The commission considered aligning council/mayoral pay with Bexar County commissioners and the county judge. The commission also looked at cities comparable in size and electoral representation, finding that those cities paid an average annual salary of $72,390 to the mayor, and $55,990 to each council member.

The commission eventually settled on a more palatable number: San Antonio’s median household income of $45,722.

“It’s a widely published number, an index number,” said Patricia Rodriguez, who chaired the group of commission members who studied the compensation issue. “There’s no way you can increase or decrease that number.”

city council comparison chart

Rodriguez explained why the mayor should earn more than council members: “Each council member represents roughly 140,000 residents. The mayor represents the entire city.”

The recommended mayor’s pay would be equal to the local median household income plus 35%.

The commission also made suggestions regarding frequency of future pay hikes. The separate ballot proposition would increase salaries every 10 years, pegged to the Census Bureau’s median household income.

If voters approve this charter amendment, the new pay levels would become effective July 1. The current pay for the mayor and council account for .027% of the city’s general fund budget; increasing salaries to the commission’s recommended levels would still represent a rounding error in the annual budget.

Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10), also a member of the Charter Review Commission, makes points during the commission's charter amendment presentation during a council B session on Wednesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10), also a member of the Charter Review Commission, makes points during the commission’s charter amendment presentation during a council B session on Wednesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley said funding for salary increases would come from Council-approved appropriations or out of individual council district budgets.

Some council members voiced concern there has been insufficient public input.

“It concerns me that we don’t have more feedback, especially about the pay issue,” said Councilmember Joe Krier (D9).

Cotrell said the commission had only three months to study the issues and develop recommendations for the Council. By the state’s 2015 procedural calendar, the City has until Feb. 27 to add to the May 9 ballot.

Cotrell said residents have had opportunities to share their feelings about the proposed charter amendments in two public meetings, five “citizens to be heard” sessions and via email to the city.

Cotrell said he and fellow commission members, “listened intently during citizens to be heard portions,” and took the input to heart. While all recommendations were made unanimously, “debates were vigorous,” Cotrell said.

Other council members expressed satisfaction that council pay was finally receiving in-depth public discussion, and that local voters would have the final say on the issue.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) noted that the pay for the mayor and council has not changed since the city charter was drafted in 1951. He added that charter language for the compensation rules amounted to a discriminatory practice, as it discouraged low-income residents from running for local elected office.

“We’re updating language that was built in the context of the 1950s and that precluded some people from running for council,” he said.

Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) asked if proposed higher pay for the Council was adequate to replace other salaried full-time positions.

“I just want to make sure that, if someone gives up one job to put in the 40-50 hours required here, that they and their family are taken care of,” he added.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg  (D8) urged his colleagues to be mindful of misperceptions that voters might have about the issue of raising the mayor and council’s pay, especially as voters consider several other key charter amendments.

Cotrell responded by asking a rhetorical question: “From a recommendation standpoint, why wouldn’t you (bring up the issue)? We felt that it’s not just about good governance, but that it’s the right thing to do.”

“As San Antonio’s stature rises across the nation, we should treat our city leaders as professionals. If they work, they should get paid,” Rodriguez said.

The commission also recommended a charter amendment that would reduce the length of time for Council to fill a vacancy.

Under the current charter, if it’s within 270 days (nine months) of the end of that member’s term, that seat is filled by a majority council vote, but commission members say that’s too long of a time before a vacancy is filled.

Additionally, the commission recommended numerous adjustments to 21 sections in the city’s charter in order to strip it of outdated language and provisions that have since been superseded by state law.

The commission did examine the issues of term limits but, noted commission member Sharon De La Garza, the group feels more time is needed before a formal recommendation can be made.

Most of the council members agreed Wednesday that having the Charter Review Commission represents an opportunity to have in place a mechanism by which the city charter can be reviewed more frequently with proposed adjustments as needed. The charter was amended twice in the 1970s following its initial establishment, but nothing happened with the document again until two reviews in the 1990s and four more times in the last 14 years.

“Our goal was to create a process to continually change the charter,” said Taylor. “It’s not for those decisions to be tied to something political but instead to show that good governance practices are always in place.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated current mayor and City Council salaries as .27% of the general budget. 

*Featrued/top image: The Municipal Plaza Building at Main Plaza.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.