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December 16, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

Time to reassess council pay Time to reassess council pay (December 16, 2005)

When it comes to compensation for elected officials, many communities subscribe to the "less is better" school, no matter what the workload or importance of a public servant. With them, the emphasis is on "servant."

Nowhere is meager pay for office holders more prevalent than in Mountain View and two of its neighbors, Los Altos and Palo Alto. A city council member earns $500 a month in Mountain View (population 71,610), $600 a month in Palo Alto (61,674), and $300 a month in Los Altos (27,693). By contrast, Sunnyvale, with a population of 131,700, is off the map, paying the mayor more than $23,000 a year and council members $17,000-plus, not including $5,000-plus in expense accounts.

And most council members can forget about getting annual salary increases based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is pretty standard in the private sector. Even retirees on Social Security receive a CPI-based raise every year.

Mountain View council members are beginning to take a look at their compensation, which is a good idea considering there has not been an adjustment since 1984. Members of the council's procedures committee have asked the city staff to estimate what $500 from 1984 would be worth today. In rough numbers, the answer is nearly twice as much, meaning that today it would take about $1,000 to match the value of $500 in 1984.

Some on the council say they fear that if pay is raised too high, up-and-coming politicos might just run for the money, while they bide their time preparing for higher office. But city council seats often are stepping stones, as illustrated by state Assembly member Sally Lieber, who worked hard on the council before leaving for Sacramento in 2002.

Although it is time to consider higher pay for the Mountain View council, members cannot vote themselves a raise. Under current law, any proposal to raise council salaries would have to be approved by the voters after the council takes up the matter, probably early next year.

City council members spend 10 to 20 hours a week on the job, attending and preparing for meetings and various public functions. Residents trust them to oversee a $74 million annual budget, and set policy for a city of more than 70,000 people and more than 500 jobs. And in the scheme of things, even a 100 percent increase in council pay would amount to only a tiny fraction of the city's annual spending.

Mountain View many not be ready to match the compensation paid in Sunnyvale, but it is time to at least consider bringing pay for city council members to a respectable level that is pegged to the CPI. Council members should not get rich at the public's expense, but they should not be paid 1984 wages either.

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