In the hopes of increasing diversity among Columbia City Council members, Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas is floating the idea of making them full-time city employees earning a living wage.
His council colleagues, however, aren’t too keen on the idea.
Thomas has included the notion as a plank in his re-election campaign platform. Thomas, who is unopposed in the April 2 election, said it should be financially feasible for anyone with the passion and the ability to get elected to serve on the council.
The current stipend council members receive falls short of a living wage so only those “independently wealthy or retired on a pension” can reasonably be a council member, according to Thomas’ campaign website.
“A lot of people who could be excellent councilpeople don’t have those advantages, so they’re essentially excluded from eligibility,” Thomas said.
In 2014, Columbia introduced stipends for council members. The six ward representatives receive $500 each month, and the mayor gets $750 each month. Council members do not get medical or retirement benefits.
Thomas thinks a $40,000 salary would be reasonable, but he doesn’t have a firm amount in mind. He said $40,000 is a livable wage for a job requiring “quite a bit of skill and application.”
Thomas said he spends roughly 30 hours a week on council work, including communicating with the public, reading documents and attending meetings.
Columbia has a council-manager form of government, and Thomas believes this might need to change with paid, full-time council members.
Under the council-manager system, the city manager is hired by and serves at the discretion of the council. The mayor is a council member-at-large who also has additional ministerial duties. The city manager oversees day-to-day operations of city government and is in charge of implementing the council’s policy agenda.
Thomas said that he hasn’t talked to other council members about the idea and that it’s not an immediate priority. He wants to get community feedback and survey cities similar to Columbia in size before going forward.
“At the moment, I’m really just floating it as an idea that makes sense to me and getting people’s feedback,” Thomas said.
Other council members expressed little support for the idea of full-time council members. While some would consider raising the stipend, none indicated support for a move away from having a city manager.
Second Ward Councilman Mike Trapp said he would consider raising the stipend for council members but not necessarily making council members full-time employees. Increasing the stipend might prompt a higher number of experienced and talented people to run for a council position, he said. He was unsure about the logistics of creating a full-time council.
“It’s a reasonable proposal, but the devil is in the details,” Trapp said.
Trapp said he wouldn’t support a strong-mayor form of government, in which the mayor directs city government operations.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala also opposes making council members full-time employees. He said council stipends and the travel allowances they receive reduce the personal costs of attending national meetings. Skala said he is not opposed to raising the stipend, but he said Columbia’s population is too small to justify a full-time council.
Paid positions might prompt candidates for council to run larger election campaigns, Skala said. That, in turn, could make them beholden to business interests that support their campaigns.
Fifth Ward Councilman Matt Pitzer said full-time paid council members would be a “big mistake.”
Pitzer worries that a full-time position would encourage professional politicians to serve on the council and risk people being interested in the job solely for the paycheck. Pitzer considers council seats to be volunteer positions.
“Columbia has had a city manager-council government for 70 years, and it has worked well,” Pitzer said. “I don’t think we need politicians to make everyday decisions.”
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Betsy Peters said she would need time to think about the idea and noted the switch would require “quite a change” to the city charter. Charter amendments must be placed on a ballot for a public vote.
Mayor Brian Treece could not be reached for comment. His election opponent, Chris Kelly, said money isn’t the issue but that the “fundamental change” to the charter is. He doesn’t disagree with the idea outright but said any decision would require a lot of citizen input.
How Columbia stacks up
Missouri cities relatively close to Columbia’s size have different levels of council compensation.
Springfield has eight unpaid city council members. The mayor gets $200 a month. Springfield city spokeswoman Cora Scott said council membership is solely voluntary. Members receive neither insurance nor pensions.
St. Joseph pays eight council members, not including the mayor, $550 per month. The mayor gets $700 per month. Council members also have an option for a pension plan and insurance through the city, and they get cell phones and iPads for work purposes.
Independence in April 2018 began paying six city council members $20,000 each, while the mayor earns $40,000. All seven representatives receive a $500 car allowance per month.
St. Charles does consider its council full-time. It has 10 council members, each earning $850 monthly. The mayor earns $75,282 per year. Council members also receive health and dental insurance and a pension plan. The mayor receives a $300 car allowance per month.