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Santa Rosa grapples with how much more to pay council members, who earn less than officials in other counties

Other issues reviewed by charter committee

A committee of 21 Santa Rosa residents spent six months studying updates to the city charter. Changes to the city’s guiding government document must be approved by voters.

Some topics, like addressing climate change to the regulation of rental properties, weren’t explored as the committee felt changes wouldn’t require an amendment to the charter and could be accomplished through council action.

The committee’s recommendations will be presented to the Santa Rosa City Council during a study session at noon May 24 and the council is expected to decide July 12 which measures will be sent to the ballot.

Recommended:

•Ratifying district-based elections: Santa Rosa switched to district elections in 2018 under threat of a lawsuit that claimed the city’s at-large elections disenfranchised minority voters but the city charter still says elected officials are elected at large. The proposal would bring the charter language in line with how elections are conducted but if it fails it could be up to a judge to decide the future of the city’s election method.

•Charter update and modernization: The committee recommended several small changes to update the charter language and revisions to clarify certain city procedures, such as allowing the city to craft a two-year budget or more frequent amendments to the charter, that would appear on the ballot as one comprehensive question.

Proposals that were rejected or not considered:

•Instituting ranked choice voting in council elections: Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than electing one candidate for office and sets a process for an instant runoff if none of the candidates receive a majority of the first-choice votes. Most committee members opposed shifting to ranked choice voting, which is used in four Bay Area cities, citing increased costs to run the election.

•Strong mayor: The proposal was not considered after failing to gain traction among committee members.

•Lower threshold for ballot initiatives: The proposal didn’t gain traction among committee members and wasn’t considered.

No recommendation:

•Expanding voting rights for noncitizens in local elections: Though the committee felt expanding voting rights to noncitizens was fair and would give that population a voice in local matters, members felt the city should further examine the issue to better understand how it would be implemented.

•Directly elected mayor: The committee weighed but ultimately was split on recommending an amendment to the charter that would call for electing the mayor by a citywide vote rather than having the mayor selected by council members. Some committee members felt having a directly-elected mayor could help the city better leverage relationships with state and federal lawmakers but others said it was a solution in search of a problem.

Should Santa Rosa council members receive a wage more commensurate with what many say is their full-time job?

It’s a question the City Council will consider asking voters this November.

Increasing council compensation from the basic $800 monthly stipend could attract more diverse and qualified candidates for public office and would more fairly reflect the hours put into the job, proponents say.

A committee reviewing the city’s charter, effectively its constitution, has recommended sending a measure to the ballot that would ask voters to raise council pay. It’s one of a dozen topics the committee studied, and the panel will present their final report to the council on May 24.

“If your intention is to get a good cross section of the public who is able to serve, then you need to provide more meaningful pay,” Mayor Chris Rogers said. “People shouldn’t have to make a choice between being a voice for their community and putting food on the table.”

Attracting working-age candidates from diverse backgrounds has remained a challenge across Sonoma County, where no council members receive more than a basic stipend. Santa Rosa’s mayor receives $14,400 annually while council members earn $9,600, plus benefits.

The pay is pittance, some wage hike proponents note, in the face of skyrocketing housing costs and other economic pressures that have long made the Bay Area one of the most expensive places to live in the nation.

Under the committee’s proposal, pay would be tied to the area median income, a figure set by federal housing officials and updated each year. The mayor would receive 100% of the median income for a three-person household, $92,500, and council members would receive two-thirds of that, or just under $62,000.

That’s a more than sixfold increase over the current stipend.

The proposal has spawned a robust debate among local government observers and interest groups.

Santa Rosa council members, former elected officials and organizations including the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association support pay raises but differ on how to achieve more meaningful compensation. Some want to see more moderate increases and are opposed to creating fully paid positions.

Council members appear poised to let voters have a say. A proposal to give raises failed in 2002.

A sixfold increase

Under the city charter, pay is set by state law and can be raised through ordinance or by ballot referral.

Santa Rosa officials receive the highest pay among municipal leaders in Sonoma County but pay lags behind cities in neighboring counties. San Rafael council members are paid $13,200, while the Napa mayor receives $34,440 and council members are paid $17,220.

Across similarly sized cities in the Bay Area’s nine counties, elected officials in Santa Rosa are among the lowest paid.

The charter committee reviewed the mayor’s calendar and heard testimony from former elected officials about the workload.

Members weighed different methods for increasing pay that would’ve resulted in a jump to $33,000 if tied to the lowest paid employee at City Hall — or up to $169,000 if tied to what Sonoma County supervisors earn.

The council also could legally increase pay through ordinance, bypassing the charter amendment process and voter approval. State law allows 5% annual increases that can be applied retroactively to the last time pay was increased. The council has never used that mechanism.

A proposed increase under that provision would bump pay up to $17,760 for council members and $26,640 for the mayor, according to a staff analysis, but committee members felt it wasn’t sufficient.

Ultimately, the committee recommended permanently setting pay to the area median income for a three-person household.

Council pay would be adjusted annually as the rate changes and the council could consider imposing financial penalties for absences or reductions if there are citywide salary cuts, under the committee’s proposal.

Voters in Berkeley approved a similar measure in 2020.

What would meaningful pay mean for the city?

Rogers, 34, said city councils across the county are still largely made up of people who are retired or have independent sources of wealth, effectively sidelining a broader cross section of the community who might be interested in serving in local elected office.

The demands that accompany public service mean it can become a full-time job, between preparing for and attending meetings, public appearances and meeting with constituents without the full-time pay. Many working-age officials have second jobs to supplement their limited stipends.

Other issues reviewed by charter committee

A committee of 21 Santa Rosa residents spent six months studying updates to the city charter. Changes to the city’s guiding government document must be approved by voters.

Some topics, like addressing climate change to the regulation of rental properties, weren’t explored as the committee felt changes wouldn’t require an amendment to the charter and could be accomplished through council action.

The committee’s recommendations will be presented to the Santa Rosa City Council during a study session at noon May 24 and the council is expected to decide July 12 which measures will be sent to the ballot.

Recommended:

•Ratifying district-based elections: Santa Rosa switched to district elections in 2018 under threat of a lawsuit that claimed the city’s at-large elections disenfranchised minority voters but the city charter still says elected officials are elected at large. The proposal would bring the charter language in line with how elections are conducted but if it fails it could be up to a judge to decide the future of the city’s election method.

•Charter update and modernization: The committee recommended several small changes to update the charter language and revisions to clarify certain city procedures, such as allowing the city to craft a two-year budget or more frequent amendments to the charter, that would appear on the ballot as one comprehensive question.

Proposals that were rejected or not considered:

•Instituting ranked choice voting in council elections: Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than electing one candidate for office and sets a process for an instant runoff if none of the candidates receive a majority of the first-choice votes. Most committee members opposed shifting to ranked choice voting, which is used in four Bay Area cities, citing increased costs to run the election.

•Strong mayor: The proposal was not considered after failing to gain traction among committee members.

•Lower threshold for ballot initiatives: The proposal didn’t gain traction among committee members and wasn’t considered.

No recommendation:

•Expanding voting rights for noncitizens in local elections: Though the committee felt expanding voting rights to noncitizens was fair and would give that population a voice in local matters, members felt the city should further examine the issue to better understand how it would be implemented.

•Directly elected mayor: The committee weighed but ultimately was split on recommending an amendment to the charter that would call for electing the mayor by a citywide vote rather than having the mayor selected by council members. Some committee members felt having a directly-elected mayor could help the city better leverage relationships with state and federal lawmakers but others said it was a solution in search of a problem.

Those demands and the high cost of living eliminate the option for too many, Rogers said, especially those from varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

Some former council members have cited those economic pressures as key factors in their decisions to quit before the end of their terms.

“We lose good people to the current system,” said Rohnert Park Vice Mayor Willy Linares, 37, who announced in April he was resigning to focus on his family.

He said higher pay could make it easier for elected officials to balance competing priorities. People should be able to serve and be fairly compensated without working two jobs, he said.

Linares’ resignation follows that of Amy Harrington, Logan Harvey and Rachel Hundley in Sonoma, Jason Tuner in Cloverdale and Jack Tibbetts in Santa Rosa, all of whom left office last year. Skylaer Palacios in Healdsburg resigned in May citing the city’s high cost of living.

Harrington, 45, who resigned last July, said the demands of the job have changed and council members are expected to be available all the time. A higher wage is fair, she said.

She noted the county’s long history of volunteer firefighters, which allowed agencies to keep costs down while meeting service needs. But agencies have shifted away from that as the job becomes more challenging and the region becomes more expensive. It’s no different for elected officials, she said.

Offering better pay for council offices could lead to more responsive representation and improved governance, local political consultant Nick Caston said.

Local leaders split on dollar figure

But what dollar amount would be considered more meaningful pay? Elected officials and interest groups are divided on that question.

At least one Santa Rosa council member wants to see a more aggressive proposal.

Councilwoman Victoria Fleming said though a $50,000 raise is significant, increasing council pay to two-thirds of the area median income isn’t enough for working-age residents to make ends meet.

She would still have to work a second job to support her family as a single mother and it likely would mean officials are going to be held to higher expectations without the commensurate financial support, she said.

Fleming, 41, favors increasing council pay to 100% of the median income and paying the mayor a higher amount.

The city should not be cowed by the potential political risk and should ask voters to pay elected officials more, she said.

“I think most families in Sonoma County, especially single-family heads of households, can understand that while $60,000 is good, it’s not good enough to raise your children in a middle-class lifestyle and save for college and down payments and health insurance and hopefully still have enough to do something nice at the end of the month,” she said.

Councilwoman Dianna MacDonald, 49, who was appointed in February to fill the remainder of Tibbett’s term, believes higher wages should be achieved gradually.

She would want to tie council pay to that of the lowest-paid city employee or the average salary of city employees and adjust salaries every few years. Such a big jump could be hard for voters to stomach, she said.

However, she acknowledged she’s in a financial position that allows her to dedicate her time to the job and agreed with Rogers and others that lower pay will make it harder to attract more diverse candidates. When she was a single mom, she wouldn’t have been able to put in the hours to carry out her duties and raise her family in Sonoma County, she said.

Here’s what elected officials and community leaders are saying

Charter Review Committee Chair Patti Cisco: Though members were divided on how significant of a raise to recommend, a majority believes the proposal will make it easier for more people to run and reflects the extent of council’s responsibilities. The method for calculating pay is easy to understand, she said.

Mayor Chris Rogers: Rogers supports raising pay to allow people interested in serving to be a full-time council member without having to work a side job. He didn’t cite a dollar figure but said whatever the increase is, it should “solve the problem.”

Councilwoman Victoria Fleming: “The irony of it all is that people on the council are there primarily because they’re advocating for the basic fabric of family life and dignity which is being able to show up for your children, show up for your partner, show up to work and do a good job and we can’t do that ourselves,” she said.

Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber: More meaningful compensation is warranted and would help introduce more diverse candidates to public services. The organization has not taken a position on what pay should be set at, he said.

Councilwoman Dianna MacDonald: “If we don’t do something, I do have concerns it is deterring good community people from the ability to run for office,” she said. “I can’t look at just my personal situation, I have to think back to a time when maybe I didn’t have the means to work at night time.”

Maddy Hirshfield, political director with the North Bay Labor Council: Hirshfield personally supports raising council pay and would support increasing pay more than what is being recommended. The Labor Council has discussed the issue but has not taken a formal position yet, she said.

Councilman Tom Schwedhelm: Schwedhelm questioned whether raising pay would actually attract more diverse and qualified candidates or if would lead to career politicians running for office. “I don’t want money to be the incentive for someone to run,” he said.

Councilman John Sawyer: Sawyer, who favors more modest increases, said the city will lose out on talent by not paying more but a significant raise could be a hit to the city budget. “Unfortunately, under that model there are people whose service we cannot take advantage of because they can’t afford to serve and that is an unfortunate reality of serving on city councils across this county and probably statewide to some degree.”

Councilman John Sawyer said he would look to consider doubling the current compensation. He noted that while it’s not a living wage it would help the city move in the right direction. There should be regular increases, too, to move toward a fairer salary, he said.

“I’m certainly in favor of increasing council pay but coming up with the perfect number is challenging,” he said.

He said though he is willing to let voters decide, personally he is not willing to pay elected officials nearly $100,000 to serve on the council, referring to the mayor’s salary under the proposal.

MacDonald and Sawyer worried a bigger increase could be a hit to the budget. Though council pay represents a small part of the operating budget — about $464,500 annually under the proposed raises or 0.2% of the general fund — it could add projected deficits in future years, they said.

‘Creating a career class of politicians’

Sawyer, 67, was also among the elected officials and groups who raised concerns that paying council members something akin to a full-time wage could change the character of the council and lead to what they called “career politicians.”

The job was never meant to be an occupation, he said, and while being mayor is a full-time job, council members aren’t working 40 hours a week every week for the city, he said.

Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, said the group doesn’t object to increasing pay, but a significant jump could attract people who bring little outside experience.

A more agreeable amount would be about half what the committee is recommending, Drummond said. The city needs to strike a balance between giving a big enough raise to attract more diverse candidates and augment their other income sources without “creating a career class of politicians,” he said.

Rogers pushed back on that criticism and said voters can hold council members accountable at the ballot.

He said he plans to propose an amendment to institute term limits to guarantee council members don’t turn serving into a profession.

He is also proposing another amendment that would exempt sitting council members from eligibility for the pay increases during their current terms.

Will voters support measure?

Ultimately the decision is likely to fall with voters.

Caston, 40, who said he has been tracking the issue of council pay for two decades, said it will be difficult going out to voters to ask for an increase.

Pay raise measures have failed at the ballot before, he said, and the political discourse at the national level has clouded voters’ feelings about politicians even if local government is functioning well.

Maddy Hirshfield, the political director for the North Bay Labor Council, said voters will have to be educated on what council members do and the work that goes into doing the job well to ensure the measure is successful.

“I’m guessing the average person sees council members having weekly, sometimes biweekly meeting, and don’t really see the rest of what they do,” she said. “There’s a lot of work beyond what the average citizen sees.”

And voters need to be shown what they’re losing by not increasing pay, Caston said.

Fundamentally, he said, it will come down to a values issue for voters and whether voters value paying for representation that is reflective of the community and qualified to serve.

“Historically, folks who were retired and more affluent would take these positions as something philanthropic and brought that perspective to council and policymaking,” he said. “If our community truly values having elected officials who are diverse in experience, age and gender then this is the initiative to pass to do it. If we want it to be a volunteer philanthropic effort for folks then we’ll end up rejecting it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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