What should we pay for public service? | November 29, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |


Mountain View Voice

Opinion - November 29, 2013

What should we pay for public service?

Are Mountain View City Council members simply citizen volunteers who should be paid a modest stipend or do they deserve more pay for the 30 hours a week or so most spend on city business?

It is a question voters may have to decide next November if a council subcommittee decides, and the full council agrees, that higher pay for council members should go on the ballot.

The arguments on both sides tend to fall into two camps:

• Opponents tend to believe that council duty is a public service and that those who are elected to monitor the public's business should be grateful for the opportunity to serve — without much pay. And never mind the fact that most have to spend thousands of dollars just to get elected. This line of thinking assumes that "citizen" council members will be just as skilled, if not more so, than paid amateurs, due either to their age and wisdom, their collection of wealth or support by an understanding spouse.

• On the other side are those who believe that you get what you pay for, and that by not paying members a fair wage, only retirees, independently wealthy people or those supported by a spouse will seek the job. This position implies that more qualified candidates will seek office and that the quality of local government will go up if council members were paid more of a living wage.

Unfortunately none of these theories have been rigorously tested, so in the Bay Area at least, compensation levels are all over the map. Mountain View's $600 a month, plus insurance coverage, falls somewhere in the mid-range, although still below Cupertino's $730 a month and far below Sunnyvale's of $1,982, although that city boasts about twice Mountain View's population of 74,000. The last time the council looked to raise the stipend (in 2006 when the pay was $500 a month) voters turned down the effort to bump it to $1,500 a month. Now the council receives $600 a month, plus health and dental insurance — and if they make it to a second term — a meager retirement pension and $223 a month towards post-retirement health care expenses, so their total compensation is higher than Los Altos, Morgan Hill, Saratoga, Los Gatos and Los Altos Hills.

But there are plenty of cities that pay more, including nearby Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Milpitas, Gilroy and San Jose. Pay for Palo Alto council members is about the same as Mountain View.

At this point, it is not clear if this "pressing" issue will ever move to the ballot. But it should, and for a simple reason: Overseeing a city with a budget of $98 million a year and more than 550 employees, while facing a complex array of challenges, from development pressures to keeping Google happy to housing thousands of workers who commute here, is a big job. City Council members must be up to speed on a huge range of issues facing the city.

To expect low-paid volunteers, with few if any skills in business or planning or managing hundreds of workers, to do a perfect job is taking a major risk.

It is time for Mountain View to consider a salary increase for council members — not to the range of Sunnyvale, but perhaps to $1,000 a month, which would wind up costing the city about $2,800 extra per month, or $33,600 a year above the inadequate compensation being paid now. It would mean council members would receive about $10 per hour if they work 30 hours a week on the public's business. And we don't think anyone could say $1,000 a month compensation is extravagant. In fact few residents of Mountain View would even consider working part-time for such a pittance.


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