If money is the market mechanism by which we value workers, the people of San Antonio do not think much of the people they elect to serve as Mayor and on the City Council.
Yet voters seem quite supportive of Mayor Taylor, elected three times before she was chosen as interim mayor, and her colleagues on City Council. Most elected Council members would easily win re-election. So why don’t they earn a fair wage for what is clearly a full-time job with so much responsibility?
The answer is rooted in city history, specifically the small-town sensibilities that prevailed after World War II in the mid-20th century, when the population was 408,000, less than one-third of present-day San Antonio. Talk of Hemisfair ’68 was years in the future. The city’s outer loop was Loop 13, which only later became the start of Loop 410.
Machine politics controlled the city. Some of the most powerful and influential people in San Antonio didn’t live inside the city limits. They lived in Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Terrell Hills. The Good Government League came to power in 1954 and stayed in power until the 1970s when the city’s growing Mexican-American majority began to challenge the status quo. Until then, the city’s Anglo business and political elite determined what was best for the rest of the city’s population. Often as not, those selected behind closed rooms to serve in public office didn’t need the money.
That was San Antonio 1950s. It isn’t San Antonio 2014, yet the City Charter, the document that guides how elected officials govern the city, is still in place. Back then, the mayor was paid $20 a week, plus an annual $3,000 stipend. That comes to $77.69 a week. Council members received $20 a week.
That’s still what we pay. Today the mayor earns less than a rideshare driver working for Uber or Lyft makes in an average night. City Council members earn less than a teenager mowing a single lawn in the inner city.
What if city fathers – and they were all fathers back then – had inserted a simple inflation clause in the City Charter in 1951 to adjust salaries for the Mayor and City Council members?
Assuming a 3.61 percent annual inflation rate used in this standard inflation calculator, the mayor would earn $724.22 a week, or $37,659.44 a year. Council members would earn $186.43 a week, or $9,694.36 annually. Using the Federal Reserve Bank’s Consumer Price Index, the weekly salaries would be slightly lower. The mayor would earn $706.60 and Council members would earn $181.90.
Mayor Taylor, married with a daughter, would live above the federal poverty line, which is $19,530 for a family of three. Council members would still be paid below the poverty line. Single council members would have to earn at least $11,490 and council members in a family of four would have to earn $23,550.
Back then, however, City Council was a 45-minute meeting. Council members went back to their private lives or other jobs the rest of the week.
Today some Council members have professional careers, or income earned from family businesses, military pensions or retirement savings. Serving the city as one of the community’s key decision makers is a full-time job. How many qualified future city leaders choose another path in life because they cannot afford to work for poverty wages?
“Serving as mayor was the most time-intensive job of my life,” said former Mayor Phil Hardberger, a still-practicing attorney whose long résumé includes helping run the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., years in private practice, and serving as an elected appeals court judge. “You put in one day in the daylight, and another day’s work that night. Weekends and holidays do not exist, ever. You are responsible for a $2.4-billion budget, with almost 1.5 million people to answer to. There’s not much time to think about anything else.”
What would constitute fair pay?
How much should we pay our mayor and council members?
“Had I remained in office another term I would certainly have put it on the ballot, and campaigned for the change,” said Hardberger, who served two, two-year terms as mayor before term limits forced him out of office. “The figures I had in mind were $50,000 a year for Council members and $100,000 for the Mayor. That’s a total executive budget per year of $600,000. Not much compared with the work and responsibility required.”
Former District 8 Councilmember Reed Williams, who now serves as the unpaid chairman of the SAWS Board of Trustees, would give individual council members some discretion in paying themselves out of their officeholder budgets.
“I am supportive of Mayor and Council pay,” Williams said. “I have advocated allowing Council members to allocate up to a stipulated amount from their Council budget. The Council member can make a decision to hire staff or pay themselves. It’s not logical that we elect public officials and then force the elected official to hire staffers to do the work.”
The issue of pay raises can be as sensitive as the pay issue itself. A change to the charter could include an escalator for seniority, meaning a sitting mayor and council person would earn an automatic raise with each re-election. An annual increase of 2.5 percent of base pay with each new term would limit officeholders to three pay raises if elected to serve a full eight years in office.
Under Hardberger’s suggested salary scale for mayor and council member – equivalent to salaries earned by a public school principal and a public school teacher – the mayor could earn a maximum of $115,000 and a council member could earn a maximum of $57,500.
“I’ve known a lot of highly qualified candidates who took a very close look at running for City Council, individuals who ultimately decided with their families that they couldn’t afford to serve,” said former Mayor Ed Garza, who now serves as the unpaid president of the San Antonio Independent School District Board of Trustees. “The City would be better served if the lack of pay did not continue to exclude some of our best and brightest.”
Former District 5 City Councilmember Patti Radle, who serves with Garza on the SAISD board, said a paycheck is especially important in the inner city Council districts.
“I very strongly feel that City Council people should be paid because I know what it’s like trying to find good people who are available in a district like ours where the poverty level is very high,” said Radle. “You cannot support a family on $20 a week and people are not going to give up their paying jobs to run for City Council.
“Some young people who are not married, like (District 4 Councilmember) Rey Saldaña, can run while living with their parents, and we were very lucky to elect someone of his talent, but it’s not typical,” Radle added. “My suggestion was to set the pay at what the average family of four in San Antonio makes.”
Would paying the Mayor and City Council attract deeper fields of candidates to run for office?
“Would paying the officials improve the quality of our elected officials? Of course it would,” said Hardberger. “No matter how public-minded a person may be, most people will not work long for nothing. To think otherwise negates what we know from our own experience and observation. If it were otherwise, why do we pay anybody a salary?”
Mayor Taylor is expected to announce plans in the coming weeks for how she intends to approach charter reform.
Would 2015 voters in a city on the rise give elected officials a long-deferred pay raise, or would they reinforce San Antonio’s small-town mindset that prevailed in the 1950s? The only way to find out is to ask them at the polls.
*Featured/top image: San Antonio City Council. Photo by Robert Rivard.