Our View | Vigilance is a Full-Time Job

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The independent inquiry performed on various city departments in regard to the handling of Norfolk Southerns West End occupation did not reveal any obvious or groundbreaking developments. But read between the lines and one thing is obvious: Being a City Council member is a full-time job.

The Council was not a major subject of the review, nor was it deemed at fault. The issue was with its subordinates and their failure to inform Council of pertinent issues pertaining to public safety.
But, as the citys governing body, Council members bear responsibility for fixing the organizational issues exposed by the debacle. The deaf can hear no evil, so if no one informed the citys governing body of what was going on, how could it have acted on the problem?

The solution is to make the mayoral post and City Council seats full-time jobs with a desirable salary.

Members of Alexandrias governing body are not regal billionaires (though some may be millionaires) ruling the city from their thrones. They are instead civil servants, most with two full time jobs. Most have had success in their industries of choice allowing some to make their own hours but this matters little to the citys residents. Leaders are defined by their impact on the city, not for winning a case at their private law firm.

Elected public office has historically been viewed in Alexandria and the Commonwealth as an avocation and not an occupation, one councilmember said. Something the landed gentry and well-off did in their spare time.

Such a rut should not continue. It leads not only to a less dynamic governing body but a less diverse one. Currently, running for and winning a political office while supporting a family and holding down a job takes personal wealth and a legion of wealthy and willing donors. These qualifications pigeonhole by class, race and therefore ideals which candidate wins.

Taxpayers employ the mayor for $30,500 a year to preside over a city of about 140,000 people and Council members receive $27,500 annually, according to the citys charter. Double those salaries and you have a pretty modest living in Alexandria. Triple them and you have a legitimate livable wage. Break the figures down by how many hours Council members spend at meetings, social commitments, and numerous local and regional boards and commissions, and they are making under minimum wage. There is also the issue of spending time with family and friends the anti-stress.

Some Council members told the Times that, in general, they spend a minimum of 60 hours a week between their profession and municipal jobs, but that some spend up to 90 hours between the two. Thats two full-time jobs.

The benefit of paying for governance is that our leaders could focus on one job rather than multitasking two. Members of our governing body attend ribbon cuttings and other ceremonial pomp and circumstance on almost a daily basis. This is the nature – and an important part – of politics; politicians must be hands on with their constituents.

But they also have a challenging grindstone job involving discourse, problem solving and decision making that affects every Alexandria residents life. This great responsibility should not be left up to part-timers. Would you let a part-time pilot fly you around the world? Would you go under the knife of a part-time surgeon?

Of course, it would be expensive to increase the governments salaries, especially at the beginning of a long recession. But it must be looked at as a long-term investment. Council members could afford to cut ribbons and simultaneously cut the budget deficit. They could shake the publics hands while shaking up the General Assembly and Congress for the good of the city. A politico appearing at the groundbreaking of the newest dog park is nice but there is probably something more substantive to do with taxpayers time and money.

If the mayor and Council could focus solely on their municipal responsibilities then their ears would be even closer to the ground, perhaps close enough to hear the rumblings of a hazardous occupant like Norfolk Southern, or the murmurings of their employees when theyre privy to issues of concern.
The most interesting nugget to come out of the independent review of city departments was the fact that city staff members were thorough to the point of failure. Their desire to be absolutely sure about the Norfolk Southern situation before informing Council led to a disaster. Full time positions behind the dais would produce not only uber-engrossed leaders but also warrant a higher level of responsibility and accountability.

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