Do you know how much your San Antonio City Council Member is paid?
This was the first question posed to individuals who gathered on Nov. 17 at the downtown campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio to take part in a community discussion about the salary of San Antonio City Council members. This discussion was the first part of a civic engagement project facilitated by UTSA students for their Public Administration Senior Seminar course taught by Dr. Francine Romero.
The students of the class pooled participants from their own community networks, which made for a diverse group of students, retirees, employees, business leaders, community organizers, civil servants, and educators.
More than half of the 16 people who participated in the instant online poll were unsure of what our City Council is paid. In fact, many of the participants were surprised to find out that the San Antonio City Charter dictates that Council members receive a salary of $20 per meeting – not to exceed $1,040 annually – with the mayor paid an additional $3,000 annual salary.
To the surprise of many, this part of the charter had not been updated since 1951, when it was first implemented. Had the compensation amount simply been tied to inflation, that $20 per meeting in 1951 would translate to $180 today.
After the class presented relevant information, the gathered participants were then permitted a short period of time to discuss curated questions proposed by student facilitators in small groups of four or five people. The students moderated the discussions and recorded the responses of each group member.
The idea behind this event was to present community members with information about the salary of San Antonio Council members, and to put that information into the context of other similarly sized cities in Texas and throughout the U.S. For instance, the city with the closest population to San Antonio is San Diego, with 1.3 million people, yet its council is paid a $75,000 annual salary compared to San Antonio’s council salary of $1,040 per year. Though San Antonio has the second highest population in Texas, it pays its council members 1/25 of Fort Worth, a city half its size.
The students then compiled the feedback they received from the community participants and prepared the results to be presented to a group of community leaders. People who participated in the first part were encouraged to return for part two to hear the presented findings.
A variety of city officials and community leaders, including UTSA Professor and Mayor Ivy Taylor, San Antonio City Clerk Leticia Vacek, Chief Engagement Officer of SA2020 Molly Cox, and the Dean of the College of Public Policy at UTSA Rogelio Saenz appeared in person to hear the results of part two of the civic engagement project. Staff members from the Texas House and Senate, as well as City Council district offices, also attended the presentation on Monday, Dec. 8.
The feedback included the reasons participants gave for keeping the compensation of council members at its current rate as well as reasons for increasing it.
For people in favor of keeping the status quo, the consensus was that council member positions should be seen as a civic duty – that a person should want to contribute without expecting compensation.
People in favor of paying a living wage for council members pointed out that they often put in full-time hours, working anywhere between 40 and 80 hours per week for the city, and cannot maintain another full-time position on top of council responsibilities. Increasing the salary could open the position to more people who are qualified and passionate about civil service but are not in a position to be financially independent or financially dependent on another person, as many of the current council members are.
Of course, one of the most pressing concerns when discussing increasing the salary of city employees is where the money will come from. Though the presentation left this and other technical and policy questions unanswered, the feedback from Part I offered some insight into the political climate of this topic and whether the broader community would support an initiative to increase council pay.
Of the 20 people in attendance for Part I, a majority of those polled at the end of the discussion were in favor of increasing the salary. Only three people selected the option for council pay to stay at its current pay or lower, while 13 chose to increase the salary and six selected the highest option given: “Higher than $45,000 annually.”
Also included in Monday’s presentation was background on why civic engagement was a difficult but important process to conduct and participate in. Even though people often rely on personal narratives to inform their opinions, which are not always objective, they can contribute unique points of view that their elected officials may not be aware of. Additionally, disagreements expressed in a respectful manner can lead to constructive dialogue that builds on itself.
Even though the presentation on Monday was more of an information session, a lively exchange ensued when the topic of paying city council members was linked to a theory that it would lead to a slippery slope of paying all civil servants, such as school board trustees. One person was quick to question why that was relevant when other cities do not pay their trustees but do pay their council members. Another attendee also emphasized that council duties are a full-time commitment, whereas the other example of a school board trustee’s responsibilities are not.
This exchange led to a productive discussion about what to do with the information presented. An issue raised in Part I of the project, and reiterated by several of the city officials in attendance for Part II, was the question of “Where could this change come from?” Understandably, several of the city officials present felt an initiative to increase council pay that originates from a council member, or the city office, would reek of self-interest.
Some individuals from Part I suggested that in order for this type of charter amendment to pass, it would need to be organized at a grassroots level. But where do you find dedicated, passionate individuals who care about this topic and have nothing to directly gain from the outcome, yet have access to community gatherings in which large numbers of citizens are present and willing to participate? This is just one of the questions brought up and left unanswered at the presentation on Monday.
A standing City Charter Commission will soon be established with the task of reviewing and recommending changes – but that commission has yet to meet. The plan is to include amendments on the May 9 ballot.
Although there were probably more questions brought up than answered, citizens have the students of Romero’s class to thank for the community dialogue stimulated through Parts I and II of their project. It was a direct result of the culmination of a semester long focus on how to stimulate constructive civic engagement.
*Featured/top image: A diverse group of friends, family, acquaintances, business partners, and professors takes part in sharing views during Part I of the project. Photo by Michelle Skidmore.