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OPINION: City Council’s salary increase will help open access to democracy for everyone

File photo of council members James Rogers, Chris Wharton, Amy N. Fowler and Erin J. Robinson, taken after they took the oath office at a ceremony at the City and County building on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, KSL)

DISCLAIMER: the following is an opinion piece, and does not necessarily reflect the views of KSL or its ownership.

Salt Lake City is in the midst of a controversy right now over City Council’s decision to increase their salaries from $26,291 to $35,925 a year.

My co-host Dave Noriega was clearly upset during our show that the council unanimously voted itself a $10,000 a year pay raise.

Like one of our listeners who weighed in on our conversation, I was a bit surprised that the council didn’t vote to delay implementing the pay increase until the next election cycle, to avoid public concern that current council members were voting to give themselves a pay raise. Their new salaries take effect in January.

But I’ve got to admit, for all the stories I’ve covered on government spending, I just can’t get myself angry over this.

Part-time job doesn’t equal part-time hours

Salt Lake City Council meeting

City Council members Erin Mendenhall and Chris Warton during the meeting to increase their salaries held on Dec. 11, 2018. (Photo: SLC Live Meetings/YouTube)

I know that, on paper, being a City Council member is supposed to be a part-time job, but in my years as a reporter in Utah I’ve worked with many council members who seem to put in far more than part-time hours. It’s something that takes time away from their families and their full-time jobs.

We’re fooling ourselves if we think that these jobs don’t require full-time attention. I know, that when I get home, my City Council members are still working. They’re still taking my calls and e-mails.

I understand that because, as a reporter, I’m part of the reason they don’t get to have any free time. We contact these people at 5:00 A.M. trying to convince them to appear on our shows, and when we call, they pick up the phone – or, at least, most of the time.

A lot of us expect to be able to get ahold of our elected representatives at midnight if we need to, and they honor that. In fact, I remember the mayor once answering one of my e-mails at 2:00 AM.

$26,291 a year just doesn’t sound like enough money for the amount of time that takes.

When I compare what the Salt Lake City Council earns to what a Davis County Commissioner earns– $180,000 a year–I would have to disagree with my cohost who called the city council raise “baffling”.

It’s not an exorbitant amount of money. Davis County Commissioners bring in compensation packages of about $180,000 a year.

Granted, the county commission is full time, but are we really saying that their work is seven times as important as a City Council member?

Low salaries bar people from politics

Salt Lake City Council swearing-in

File photo of Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers taking the oath of office during a ceremony at the City-County Building on Jan. 2, 2018. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, KSL)

I could never become a City Council member. It’s a door that’s barred to me because I just wouldn’t have the time to represent anybody.

My job and my kids take up a lot of time. Even now that my kids are grown up, they still need their Mama, and I still need to be with them. And if I had to balance an extra full-time job on top of all that, I just couldn’t do it.

From talking to many friends, neighbors and Utah residents over the years, I know I’m not alone on that.

That’s a major part of the reason City Council voted to increase their salaries: to open up access to more people who may not be able to afford to throw their hats into the ring.

Salt Lake City resident Robert Goodman came out to encourage the Council to raise their salaries. He wasn’t a member of the Council; he just thought it was, as he put it, “a just move.”

He told them it would be a way of “incentivizing kind of diversity of both age, demographic and walks of life on the City Council, as well as encouraging people who rent potentially being on City Council”. He brought up an excellent point.

Not everyone has the freedom to reorganize their schedules so that they can get out of work at 3:00 PM on Tuesday so they can sit in a pre-council meeting and then sit through a council meeting and then sit through a public hearing until 1:00 AM.

Most people can’t do that. For most people, if you tell your boss that you’re going to be cutting out early to work a second job and that you’ll be coming in bleary-eyed and exhausted tomorrow, there’s a good chance you’re going to be out of work fast.

As Councilmember Chris Warton said, City Councils need to be able to attract people other than business owners and lawyers. And they’re not going to be able to do that if the job only pays $26,291 a year.

This isn’t going to change everything. It’s not going to make democracy accessible to everybody overnight.

But it’s a step in the right direction.

Another side to the story

This story didn’t bother me, but my co-host Dave Noriega was livid about it. You should hear both sides of the story. Read what he had to say and, if you missed our show about it on KSL Newsradio, listen to our discussion about on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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