A Time for Change
Sacramento is the only major city in California with a part-time city council. So when did we get the monopoly on wisdom? (Answer: We didn’t.)
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AAs Darrell Steinberg prepares to settle into the mayor’s chair this December with a full slate of pressing issues facing our fast-growing metropolis, it’s almost quaint to think back to those days of yore when Sacramento was a smaller town in a simpler time and all we needed was a part-time leader.
One can practically imagine the mayor pulling up to City Hall in his or her horse-drawn carriage at the turn of the century and alighting to greet the townsfolk.
It would be a charming image, of course, if the turn of the century wasn’t the most recent one, when the mayor in question was Heather Fargo. Yes, our last mayor. She was, in fact, elected as a part-time mayor in the year 2000, and the city didn’t vote to make the position full time until 2002. Incredibly, we were the last major California city to take that step. Even Stockton had a full-time mayor before Sacramento did. “It’s two-bit stuff to have a capital city with a mayor who isn’t full time,” former Mayor Anne Rudin told The Sacramento Bee in 2001.
To that point, it’s time to take the next logical step and change our city charter to create a full-time city council. Once again, we’re the last ones to get the memo on this.
Virtually every other major California city has already done it, including San Diego, San Jose, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco.
Here in Sacramento, we’ve talked about it off and on for decades, but a vote on the matter hasn’t been held since the late 1970s.
It’s time to turn talk into action.
There are approximately 5,700 people employed by the city of Sacramento, but only nine of them are elected to make major decisions about the future of our region. One is the mayor. The other eight are our city council members. Fun fact: Because they are considered part-time city employees—and are paid accordingly—each of them makes less than some of the plumbers and parking lot supervisors working for the city.
As a result, seven of the eight council members have second jobs in areas ranging from construction to education and nonprofit work. This would be fine if the reality of being a city council member didn’t demand a full-time commitment and then some. But it does.
Our mayor is now full time. Our county board of supervisors is full time. All of our state and federal legislators are full time. If you think city council members have less work to do because they “only” represent neighborhoods, think again. They represent the city. They also make tough decisions about matters that affect the entire region, well beyond the city’s borders. That kind of responsibility requires a time commitment that shouldn’t be part-time and shouldn’t be cluttered by a second job. We’re a big city facing big challenges—homelessness, safety concerns, complex transportation issues, rapid growth, etc. These aren’t part-time problems.
East Sacramento and South Natomas Councilman Jeff Harris, for example, estimates that he puts in well over 50 hours per week for civic duties, and yet with a daughter to put through college, he still builds homes on the side—though he thinks he may need to hang up his tool belt soon given the amount of time the council position requires. That’s a tough call when the construction market for new housing is booming right now, but one he would happily make if he can afford to.
“It’s a sacrifice for me financially,” he says, noting that his take-home salary from the city is approximately $3,800 per month. Harris says that he reads upward of 1,000 pages a week to stay on top of upcoming council topics, in addition to holding Saturday office hours for the public once a month and attending all manner of civic events. He’s quick to point out that he deeply values his council position and feels strongly about giving it his all. “I really love this job,” he says. “But people have no idea how hard city council members work.”
His situation gets at the root of one of the major flaws of a part-time council system. If the city can’t pay a competitive wage for a council person, then we’ll be left with fewer qualified candidates running for office.