Our view: One cheer for council pay raise

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(File photo)
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City council’s unanimous vote at Saturday’s public hearing to minimally raise salaries for Alexandria’s mayor and members of council was a tiny step in the right direction, but we have concerns about the timing and substance of the action.

Council tried to address this issue in November 2015 – after that year’s local election was safely over. There was a huge public outcry, including on these pages, and the matter was dropped. Then, as now, what we take issue with is the fact that council did not consider a pay increase until after the election was over.

There are differences between the way the issue was approached in 2015 and now. For starters, this time a task force was formed to study council pay and make recommendations. And last time the topic was discussed following the general election, while this time it came two weeks after the primary.

But the central fact remains the same: council considered raising its own pay after facing voters instead of before. We think that’s cowardly at best.

Saturday’s vote was doubly cowardly because it didn’t increase the council and mayor’s salaries nearly enough.

The salary of council members was raised from $27,500 to $37,500 and that of the mayor from $30,500 to $41,600. This is the first time council pay has been lifted in 15 years, and yet the amounts are so small as to be inconsequential. Our objections are based on concerns of fairness, the reality of these jobs and the city’s balance of power.

From a fairness perspective, it’s simply absurd that the elected officials make less than the aides who assist them – yet it’s true.

Even with the $10,000 jump in salary, Alexandria’s next mayor, presumably current Vice Mayor Justin Wilson after his victory in the Democratic primary, will still earn only two-thirds the salary of his aide.

Current Mayor Allison Silberberg is being paid roughly half that of her aide: $30,500, while her aide makes $60,000. This discrepancy is bad enough, but when compared to City Manager Mark Jinks, who makes almost $300,000 annually, or even one of the deputy city managers, who make close to $200,000, the unfairness of council and mayoral pay comes into sharp focus.

The tiny salaries are based on the quaint notion that these are part-time jobs. And in the 21st century in a city of 150,000, they’re simply not – and no amount of wishful thinking is going to return Alexandria to sleepy, slower days of yore.

For starters, modern technology means that today’s mayor and council members are flooded with hundreds of emails each week; their elected forebears did not face this time drain. In addition, the number of issues to master and committees and meetings to attend have grown tremendously through the years. And the current mayor and her predecessor have spent the past 15 years appearing at dozens of civic events each week. This level of visibility by the mayor is now expected by city residents.

Most problematic, however, is the growing imbalance of power in Alexandria’s city manager/council system of government. The unelected city manager acts as the executive, managing the bureaucracy and carrying out policies supposedly set by the six-member council plus mayor, which act as the city’s elected legislature.

The problem is, with Alexandria’s part-time mayor and council, that policy-making function is increasingly delegated to city staff, making the city manager position all-powerful – and the function of council and the mayor increasingly weak.

We think a full-time mayor and council is the only way to combat this concentration of authority in Alexandria’s unelected bureaucracy. If it takes a few hundred thousand extra dollars a year to at least triple the salaries currently being discussed, so be it.

As the old adage goes, “You get what you pay for.”

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