My View: An open letter to Denise Dunbar

My View: An open letter to Denise Dunbar

By David Speck

Dear Denise:

Your open letter to the mayor and city council regarding a pay raise was well written and well reasoned (no surprise there). Unfortunately it was made with a faulty premise — city council is not a job and the compensation is not a salary. And arguing the case based on how hard they work is, frankly, irrelevant.

For as long as there have been city councils, some members work hard and some don’t; some are well prepared and some are not; some are out every night just showing up and some are not, but the only commitment that truly is required is two Tuesday evening legislative meetings and one Saturday public hearing a month.

Yes, there are plenty of other work sessions, gatherings, events and regional matters, but even that results in a wide variation of time commitments. The underlying fact is that city council is a volunteer service and not, hopefully, a career. If part of your argument is that a pay raise is deserved because of the burden of time and effort that city councilors expend to help this community and its citizens, then maybe we should start with more money for classroom teachers, sanitation workers and all the other unsung folks who make this city special and often go far beyond what their job requires.

But the other part of the case I make has a little bit of “inside baseball” to it. Alexandria operates under a council-manager form of government. Simply stated, that means that the city manager is the CEO and COO of the city, not the mayor or council. City council has three appointments it makes directly: the city manager, the city attorney, and the city clerk.

That’s it. There is no other operational or executive role allowed or required other than appointing the city manager, who appoints and supervises everyone else who runs the city. City council’s role is a legislative one, and even the annual budget, which although approved by the city council, is generated by staff and presented by the city manager.

So, when the proposal is to increase the compensation to $47,117 for city councilors and $90,000 for the mayor, my question is: What exactly are we expecting them to do that they are not already doing now?

You also make the comparison to the pay for the legislative aides. For this, I think you actually make my point even clearer. For them, it is a job. Each city councilor is able to make that appointment directly and there is a line item in the city budget for exactly that purpose. When the aide position was created in the 1970s, it was in recognition that the role of city council was becoming more demanding — constituent services, letters, calls, etc. — and most city councilors had other jobs that did not allow them to always be available.

It also might be advisable to consider the history of city council compensation. It began in the 1960s as I recall, and clearly was never intended to be a salary. The case that was made was that serving on city council resulted in members accruing out-of-pocket expenses for travel, event tickets or meals in the course of carrying out their duties like required meetings or social events and was intended to reimburse members for that.

If the concern is that city councilors are incurring increased expenses associated with serving, then build in a process whereby their compensation will increase with the same cost-of-living adjustment as city employees.

Fundamentally, the argument I am making is one that I have made consistently since I first ran, unsuccessfully, for city council in 1979: The positions of mayor and city council are not fulltime and they are not jobs. If the residents of Alexandria want to change that, then don’t do it through the back door by raising the stipend, do it up front with a comprehensive analysis and review of all the issues and consequences that might result from a fulltime council.

To be blunt, there are a lot of people in this community who would be delighted to be paid $47,000 to $60,000 for a job that requires minimal attendance. Personally, I am not sure that I would want that to be the incentive to run for office.

To conclude, I have no grievance with this city council. I know them all and I have even served with some of them. They are dedicated, capable and, yes, hard-working public servants. I am grateful that they have made this commitment to run for office and for the voters to entrust them with the responsibility of guiding the city.

But if we follow the logic that you have laid out in your column, Denise, then raises will continue inexorably until they are significant enough to be one’s primary compensation. That, in my judgment, fundamentally changes the type of government we have had for more than 200 years — voluntary, citizen legislatures.

The writer is a former city councilor.