COLUMBIA — It’s a question that’s come up many times, both at the polls and at forums for City Council candidates, over the years: Should council members be paid and, if so, how much?
This year’s council campaign season is no exception. At forums sponsored by the Central Columbia Get Out the Vote Committee, the four candidates for the First Ward council seat have been asked for their thoughts on the issue.
Paying council members would require an amendment to the city charter, which now defines council representation as strictly a volunteer effort. Voters have been asked before to clear the way for council pay. In 1992, they rejected a proposal to pay the mayor $6,375 per year and other council members $4,250 per year. The vote was 4,143 in favor and 5,001 against.
First Ward candidates are unanimous in their support for some level and kind of council pay, but they vary somewhat in their opinions on the matter. Here are their thoughts.
Baxter, a registered nurse and resident of the Ridgeway neighborhood, favors paying City Council members a salary, but she thinks now might not be the time to take the issue to voters.
“I’m not sure in this particular time of the economic slowdown in Columbia that citizens are going to be willing to go there, but I do think that it should be considered,” Baxter said. “I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with council people being paid.”
Baxter said paying council members might allow them to spend the time it takes to focus on their wards. The work council members do to improve the city should be rewarded, she said.
“They put in a tremendous amount of work and effort on the citizen’s behalf. I know councils in a lot of cities have salaries. I don’t think it changes the attitude of the council person; I think it just gives them greater opportunity to actually serve the citizens better.”
Baxter said she is unsure which part of the city budget council salaries would come from.
“I don’t know that it would require a tax increase, but it would definitely be a budget item in salary that would have to take out of some other category,” Baxter said. “... We’re facing a lot of important budget issues now on the council, so there would have to be a lot of preparation for this.”
Three-term incumbent Almeta Crayton said there would be benefits to council representatives receiving stipends, but she said there are more glaring needs in the First Ward.
Crayton said she certainly could put any extra money to use, but she emphasized that isn’t the reason she ran for City Council. Crayton said at the final Central Columbia’s Get Out The Vote candidate forum that she ran for council because she feared for the safety of her child in her neighborhood.
“I didn’t come into it (city council) knowing I’d make a profit, but you do have to have certain things. I don’t have a computer, which is a disadvantage to me, but that’s just the way it is.”
Crayton said she’d rather focus on the problems in her ward.
“I’m worrying about getting financial situations in our ward fixed up and cleaned up. We got all sorts of families that need help.”
Clark, a long-time neighborhood and community activist, said he has been campaigning for a modest stipend for council people for the past four years. Clark ran for mayor in 2004 and 2007 and said the issue of council pay was included in his platform both times.
Clark would not recommend a specific amount that council members should be paid but insists it should not come in the form of a salary.
“If I was elected, I would ask the voters to provide a modest stipend for council members,” Clark said. “I would have a visioning group to come back with not so much recommendations as a range of options to consider with rationales to support them. That’s what I support.”
Clark said his argument is to make the council-manager form of government work better for Columbia by providing more support for the council.
“The staff isn’t accountable to the council,” Clark said. “The council should approve other supports such as office space and staff assistance for its members.”
Paul Sturtz, co-founder of Ragtag Cinemacafe and the True/False Film Festival, favors giving council members stipends.
“I think the city has now grown to the point where issues are more complicated and there’s more people to represent,” Sturtz said. “We need to acknowledge that as a city. If we’re serious about the issues that are confronting us, then we need to come up with a stipend.”
Sturtz recommended a stipend of about $1,000 a month.
“To be an effective City Council person, you need to work 20-plus hours a week. I think we can all acknowledge that $10 an hour is not an extraordinary amount,” Sturtz said. “That would be $1,000 a month at most.”
Sturtz also said that offering a stipend probably would encourage more people to run for council seats. But he emphasized that future council representatives should not be running for financial gain.
“I’m not looking to make this job into something where people can retire or give up their other jobs,” Sturtz said. “I think it’s very healthy for City Council representatives to have their feet in the other world and to make council work into a part-time job that they take seriously.”
Sturtz also said the process of bringing the issue before the voters and changing the city charter to incorporate pay for the council needs to be well-thought out and that it might take a year or two.
“(This) is not at the top of my agenda by any means,” Sturtz said.
Missourian reporters Sean Madden, Anne Hauser, Rachel Heaton and Jenn Herseim contributed to this report.