Darwin Hindman spent six days last week at two conferences in Washington trying to become a better mayor.
Hindman estimates he goes out of town on city business three to four times a year.
“People demand a lot of their city officials,” Hindman said.
The city of Columbia reimburses him and other council members for such trips, but they have to pay out of their own pockets if they choose to bring family members. Hindman took his wife to Washington on his own dime. But, the mayor and other council members said, it might be time to take another look at what the city can do for its elected leaders.
The council currently receives no salary or stipend for its work. Council members are volunteers. And in that regard, Columbia is hurting for company.
Of all the Missouri cities with populations of more than 40,000, Columbia is one of two that offers no compensation to council members. In some cities, council members receive stipends of a couple hundred dollars a month. In others, they get annual salaries topping $10,000.
“It’s noble to serve in these positions without pay,” Hindman said. “But in this day and age, it’s no longer the fair thing to do, especially in a city the size and complexity of Columbia.”
Columbia council members estimate they spend 15 to 20 hours a week on city matters, including their biweekly regular meetings and related preparation, work sessions, neighborhood meetings and time spent with constituents.
“It takes every bit of discretionary time I have,” Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless said. “When I’m not at work, with my family or at church, I’m doing stuff for the city.”
Family is the reason Bob Hutton took a break from council service in 1995. Hutton had been the Third Ward councilman since 1989 but decided he wanted more time at home.
“I had a young child at home in 1995, and I needed to be home rather than spend time with the council,” Hutton said. He returned to the council in 2001.
In addition to the local work, out-of-town conferences can consume valuable personal time.
“I think out-of-town meetings are important for the mayor and City Council to go to,” Hindman said. “But it often eats up the family vacation.”
Council members also spend a significant amount of their own money to volunteer. Vehicle mileage, gasoline and Internet and cell phone services are some of the costs that rise with council service.
“Not only do we not get paid, we are paying,” Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said.
Laura Nauser said that as the Fifth Ward councilwoman, she gets invited to a lot of charity events that she or her husband must pay to attend. Even when events are free, she said, council members feel pressure to donate to charitable organizations.
“I don’t do a lot of those things because of the cost,” Nauser said.
There are unexpected costs as well. As a snowstorm blasted portions of the western United States in late December and early January, Hoppe found herself stuck in Colorado during a visit to her daughter. Interstate 70 had been shut down, so she was forced to fly back to Missouri to get here in time for the first council meeting of the year.
“I paid for a ticket to get home for a council meeting,” she said. “I felt the responsibility to get back.”
A monthly stipend, she added, would help with those sorts of costs.
The idea of paying council members is not new to Columbia. In 1992, the council placed a proposition on the ballot that would have amended the city charter to allow pay for council members. The proposal was based on the minimum wage and an average work week of 30 hours for the mayor and 20 hours for other council members. Had the proposition passed, the mayor would have made $6,375 per year and council members $4,250. The proposition failed by a vote of 5,001 to 4,143.
That was fine with Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku, who still believes council members need no pay.
“I’m personally comfortable with the present situation,” Janku said.
Janku said that he recognizes that the lack of a stipend might prohibit some people from running for council and that he might be in favor of “something modest.”
Loveless said that although he thinks sitting on the council is demanding, council members should not be paid. “My perception is this deal isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
Loveless also said that council races have “never failed to attract well-meaning and dedicated, good council people.”
While that might be true, the number of people running for seats on the council has declined, giving voters fewer choices. From 1997 to 2006, the number of council candidates running unopposed doubled from that of the previous 10 years, and the number of candidates running for each seat also declined to an average of less than two for each position.
“If you don’t fix it where everybody can afford to be down here (at city hall), then only a certain income level of people will be able to do it,” said First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton.
Springfield is the only other Missouri city with a population of more than 40,000 that averages fewer than two candidates per council seat. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the other city that does not pay its city council.
“This city is ran on volunteerism,” Springfield councilman Denny Whayne said. “The working person would have a hard time dealing with it.”
By comparison, St. Peters pays its aldermen an annual salary of $13,767 and its mayor $40,000, even though they are considered part-time jobs. In their April election, St. Peters voters will have 25 candidates to choose from for the positions of mayor and the four alderman seats.
Columbia has two people running for each of three council seats, Third and Fourth Ward councilor and mayor.
St. Peters alderman Terry Hawkins said the fact that the aldermen are paid brings out more candidates.
“If you’re going to have a successful council, you’re going to have to compensate them,” Hawkins said. “You want your best players.”
Hawkins owns a building supply company in St. Peters and said he spends at least a month away from his job every year traveling to conferences and meetings for the city. If the position weren’t paid, he said, he might have reconsidered his work for the city.
“When I signed up, I did not know we got paid,” Hawkins said. “Would I fight to stay on if I didn’t get paid? I don’t know.”
Andrew Shepler and Julie O’Brien contributed to this report.