Sandy Springs’ Charter (adopted by the State Legislature, and which only the Legislature can amend) sets the salaries for elected officials in our City, currently $18,000/year for Council members and $40,000 for Mayor. This has been the rate of pay since 2014, and unless changed by the State Legislature, will remain at that level forever.
I knew that my proposal to compensate elected officials with benefits akin to what other city employees receive would be controversial and not universally accepted. These conversations have occurred over the years, before I began my tenure on the Council, and again in recent months. (It should be noted that the City’s Charter Commission, which included two former councilmembers and which recently completed its report, unanimously recommended an increase of elected official salary. However, that remains subject to State Legislature review and would not likely be effective for the upcoming new term).
As a Council, we are very often (almost always in fact) unanimous in our votes. To be sure we sometimes have vigorous debate and occasionally we are divided. That is to be expected. The debate during Council work session the other night, however, was more impassioned than I had anticipated, with several Council members indicating opposition, and the Mayor threatening veto when my proposal comes up for a vote at our next Council meeting.
I believe that elected official compensation in Sandy Springs should be increased for two reasons:
First, the demands and responsibilities of these positions are substantial – especially Mayor. These are not jobs in the traditional sense, and not full time, but there are significant sacrifices with time, responsibilities, and for many who serve, lost economic opportunity. The work can often be thankless, but for me (and I believe most/all of the others who serve) it is extremely satisfying and a tremendous privilege and honor. Nobody twists our arms to run or serve.
Most reasonable people do not believe these should be unpaid positions. So the question is not whether to compensate, but how much to pay. And again, the Council has no control over salary (other than CPI increases which can be adopted). Instead, the Council has jurisdiction only over whether to pay benefits.
The second and more important concern is more subtle: What is the purpose and impact of compensation (or put another way: of over compensating or undercompensating) – on public policy and access to participation in the public process? To be in “the room where it happens” and have a “seat at the table?” Obviously we shouldn’t “over compensate” elected officials – what business or organization would want to do that? There’s no need to do that and indeed “public service” will never, and should never, pay commensurate with the private sector. But we can all agree that’s not the situation here and at current levels of compensation that cannot possibly be the case. In fact, Councilman DeJulio often jokes that serving on Council is like “working for $0.20 per hour.” An exaggeration to be sure, but we all get the point. One former Councilmember described compensation as being “loss mitigation.” Moreover, as noted above, the Charter Commission has recently recommended salary increases for elected officials.
In my view, we need to be removing barriers to service in elected office. While serving is indeed public service, it differs significantly from other volunteer positions that so many in our community undertake, and what makes our City such a wonderful place in which to live. They (including myself and all of my elected colleagues) volunteer time with organizations such as the Community Assistance Center, veterans groups, and in HOAs. Or by spending time in hospitals, coaching youth sports, or in churches or synagogues. In fact, I’m certain there are many community volunteers who spend even more time in their public service activities than elected officials. And with that public service – as with serving in elected office – there is a personal satisfaction of “giving back” to the community, one which does not require any compensation at all. If a citizen can give of their time and money, then that is a mitzvah, if not, then that’s okay, too. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
But in the case of holding an elected office, the fundamental difference is one of power:
- The power to determine how the city will allocate its substantial resources (over a four year term, Council determines how to spend $500 million or more);
- The power to tax;
- The power to determine what is and what is not a crime (which can result in fines and imprisonment);
- The power to determine land use policy;
- The prioritization of transportation projects, and so much more.
Thankfully, by Charter, Sandy Springs is not managed day-to-day by its elected officials. We leave that to the City Manager and trained professionals. The elected body, however, has a critical oversight function monitoring the work of the City’s unelected employees in the delivery of the services for which we – the taxpayers – are footing the bill. And it is for these reasons that these positions must be accessible to all, and that we should be removing barriers to participation in that critical function of government.
It has been said by some that they “would do the job for nothing” (although I’m not aware of any of my colleagues not accepting their pay or anybody running for office on a platform that includes serving in office without pay). But that approach, and the argument that we somehow don’t want people “doing this for the money,” noble as it seems, is insidious and actually proves the point. Some people simply cannot do what is required of the job because they cannot afford to. And that alone should NOT be the difference or obstacle to having a seat at the table.
It is perfectly acceptable for one person to offer their services for free (or at a substantial discount), but that should not be “the price of admission.” The compensation should be fair and commensurate with the work and responsibilities. Isn’t that also the “American Way?” We should be attracting the best, brightest and most committed. I do not fear that we will have an onslaught of people signing up to run “for the money.” I trust our voters to discern the intentions of the candidates. But I also do not want to eliminate qualified candidates based on a system that (intentionally or unintentionally) under-compensates the required time, work and responsibility.
In 2017, our last elections, of the seven offices up for election (Mayor and six Council seats), all but one of the races were uncontested, including even one open Council seat. We are not suffering from an over-supply of people seeking leadership roles for the “wrong reasons.” In fact, I believe we need to strengthen the pipeline of leadership in our community. If increasing compensation will enable more individuals to step-up and serve, then I believe that is a good thing and the right thing to do. There may be other ways to do this than what I am suggesting, and I remain open to all good ideas.