Push for more pay could torch new City Council members’ political capital and spark fight with legislature

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In his first meeting as a city councilman, Braxton Winston reinvigorated a debate that has simmered off and on for years — should our local elected officials get paid more?

Unlike most large U.S. cities, Charlotte operates under a council-manager form of government with a weak mayor. The council appoints a city manager to run the government’s day-to-day activities. As such, a role on the council is considered a part-time job and is paid accordingly.

Charlotte City Council members currently earn a total of $32,709 in compensation, which includes a $19,809 in base salary and several expense allowances.

This is well below what council members in many other large cities are paid. The data below comes from a 2016 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Some of these cities have what’s considered a full-time council, and some are considered part-time. Even in “full-time” councils, members often have outside employment.

And that’s roughly the argument Winston made.

“I know Mayberry is set in North Carolina, but Charlotte is no Mayberry,” he said last week. “The people of Charlotte should have a full-time government advocating for their needs day in and day out.”

You can watch his remarks for yourself beginning at the 24:50 mark of this video. Winston, who works as a freelance videographer, also calls for council members to serve four-year terms, rather than two.

Photo by Braxton Winston for Charlotte City Council via Facebook

This full-time versus part-time issue is something that cities across America have wrestled with for decades.

Many elected officials devote full-time hours even with part-time pay.

There are arguments to be made on both sides. Each dollar given to a council member is a dollar less that can be used for affordable housing or police officers. Creating full-time, highly compensated elected body could create a permanent political class disconnected from reality. We also have plenty of examples of council members who work full-time jobs and raise families while serving.

[Agenda story: Why it makes sense for Charlotte to have a weak mayor making only $44,000 a year]

On the other hand, a full-time council presumably could make elected officials more responsive and held more directly accountable for changes.

Of course, the city only has control over the compensation. The city of Charlotte’s charter spells out a council-manager form of government, and only the state legislature could change that. Essentially, it would be raising pay to fit while keeping the current job description. Similarly, Charlotte has no power to move to four-year terms on its own (and voters have roundly rejected the Mecklenburg County commissioners’ attempts to do so multiple times).

If moving Charlotte to a strong mayor system were on the table, that would make the discussion even more complicated.

The optics of this for Winston could hardly be worse.

He was the leading vote-getter among a slate of new, younger candidates that now hold a majority on the board. They promised to shake things up, Winston in particular.

[Agenda story: Millennials are about to control the City Council. How will they change Charlotte?]

But their mandate from the voters was to apply their fresh perspectives to things like affordable housing, transparency, transportation and economic mobility. Not raising their own pay.

While Winston acknowledged at the meeting that this was a “politically difficult” conversation, it also risks him burning up the considerable political capital he brings to the dais. Spending his time and energy on this issue would likely make it more difficult to pursue other policy agendas that are equally difficult but more meaningful to Charlotteans.

It’s unclear whether Winston would have enough votes to approve any pay increase.

The move would likely have the support of council member LaWana Mayfield, who has floated the idea in the past.

The other new members of the board in the Democratic Party have not indicated whether they support Winston’s proposal. Republican Tariq Scott Bokhari has said publicly he opposes it.

Should a pay hike go through, though, Charlotte should expect a backlash from the state government in Raleigh. Remember, in North Carolina, cities only have the authority given to them by the General Assembly. We saw this play out with Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance and the ensuing House Bill 2 in early 2016, and before that with control over Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Rep. Andy Dulin, a Mecklenburg County Republican and former Charlotte councilman, has already warned on Facebook that he would start working on a bill to implement term limits should the Charlotte council move toward higher pay.

I’d expect the state legislature to pass something along those lines, or even go farther in regulating local government pay. This move wouldn’t have the national backlash that HB2 had.

There could be a reasonable compromise — adding staff in the constituent services department. The city of Charlotte has recently hired people to help council members address concerns and work on individual problems.

Sam Spencer, who most recently managed former mayor Jennifer Roberts’ campaign, advocated for giving council members their own staff in an op-ed published by the Observer.

Having dedicated staff for council members brings along with it its own host of issues around political patronage. But increasing the overall number in the pool working on these issues could be a way to address Winston’s point while minimizing the risks.

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Andrew Dunn
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