Councilor proposes paying Salem’s elected officials monthly stipend

Many other Oregon cities pay elected officials a stipend, but not Salem. Councilor Tom Andersen believes that could be a problem.

Andersen last week filed a motion to give eight councilors and the mayor a monthly stipend as demands grow for Salem’s elected officials. The amounts and how they would be paid are up for discussion, but the motion does suggest councilors should not be paid more than $2,000 per month, and the mayor $2,500 per month.

“All we’ve done is put a limit on what’s going to be discussed,” Andersen told Salem Reporter. The motion is expected to go before the Salem City Council Nov. 13.

The issue is whether councilors should be paid at all — or if civic duty is reward enough.

Salem councilors and the mayor are not paid. They have small expenses reimbursed and get the occasional free dinner before meetings.

Andersen said he is concerned that elected officials seem to work more and more, but he has heard from people who cancelled plans to run for office because the time required would disrupt their work schedule.

“The only people you have on council are either retired, independently wealthy, working for government agencies … or people who are self-employed, like myself,” said Andersen, noting government agencies offer flexible hours.

Andersen, a self-employed employment lawyer, said the city is hampered in getting a more representative council.

“Speaking generally, that leaves out young people, minorities and most workers. There’s a vast portion of our city unrepresented,” he said

The city populace is about one-quarter Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It will allow some people, who are not now able to, to serve,” Andersen said.

Two councilors and the mayor, all of whom are retired, disagree. They don’t believe pay would necessarily attract better candidates; and in fact they contend pay would taint officials’ relationships with the public.

Mayor Chuck Bennett said the job’s volunteer nature is a sort of litmus test to attract people who are willing to sacrifice to serve.

“It fields people who are reliably civic-minded and they’re not here to, in any way, enrich themselves,” Bennett said. “This is a common practice around the state, to have voluntary leadership. I know there are communities where the mayor is paid, but I don’t see any better government there than we (have).”

Councilor Steve McCoid said the volunteering aspect improves officials’ relationships with constituents. He said many people are suspicious of elected officials’ decisions because they assume they are paid.

“I’ve found it, frankly, a beneficial thing for me to say (to people) ‘I’m a volunteer. I do this for the good of the community,’” he said. “It sort of cools the roll of people who call up to chew you and assume you’re paid.”

Councilor Jim Lewis also opposed the idea, saying that he has volunteered with grassroots organizations for more than 40 years and served voluntarily on the city’s planning commission for a decade before becoming a councilor.

“I still have a great deal of pride in my volunteer work. The idea of getting paid for it would certainly cut into that level of pride,” he said. “If I wanted to get a paying job I’d probably look for work outside of city council work.”

Lewis, who called the current system “imperfect,” noted that while city councilors and the mayor do make decisions, they are not obligated to be involved in daily operations like the city manager and staff.

“I’ve always started with respecting the staff, and if it’s proven they’re not doing the doing their job then you deal with it,” he said. “Whether it’s been volunteer or executive director, I’ve never been a fan of a board or council entering the day-to-day work.”

Councilors’ decisions are still important enough that the city should ensure they are fielding the best candidates, said Councilor Matt Ausec. He supported a stipend generally but wanted to hear discussion first.

“We’re setting the direction for hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds and you want people to know what they’re talking about, researching the issues, reading staff information and maybe even a little more than that,” he said. “It’s really hard to do on a volunteer basis.”

The four other councilors – Councilors Cara Kaser, Brad Nanke, Chris Hoy and Sally Cook  — could not be reached for comment.

Other cities offer a stipend for elected officials. Eugene, for example, gives councilors a stipend of $1,343 a month and slightly more than $2,000 per month for the mayor.

Other cities that pay a stipend to councilors include Astoria, Bend, Harrisburg, Hermiston, Klamath Falls, Medford, according to the League of Oregon Cities, ranging from $50 a month to a couple hundred.

Salem, meanwhile, is larger in population and officials’ responsibilities are growing, Andersen said. Councilors spend hours preparing for meetings to deliberate on complex issues and serve on committees, commissions and task forces.

Andersen, Ausec, McCoid, Lewis and Bennett each said they spend at least 20 hours a week working as elected officials. That can also ratchet up if a major event arises, such as last summer when water-borne toxins infiltrated the city’s drinking water supply. Andersen said his councilor duties then took up more than 50 hours a week.

“I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, but that kind of commitment makes many people say ‘I can’t do this,’” he said.

Paying councilors has been an idea floated in the past, but not to this degree. In 2015, Councilor Diana Dickey requested information on how cities paid their respective council members.

It’s unclear how easily a stipend could be implemented. Salem’s city charter states “the mayor and councilors shall receive no compensation for their services,” although City Attorney Dan Atchison noted to Salem Reporter that compensation and reimbursements are not the same thing.

Andersen said he is cognizant that any stipend proposal will have to be done thoughtfully. Even still, some officials, like Lewis, don’t believe they will be convinced.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to do this job for pay,” Lewis said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.