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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Consider that in 2008, all four council members up for reelection that year ran without an opponent.

In city council elections since 2000, Councilmembers Eric Guerra, Angelique Ashby, Sandy Sheedy, Rob Fong and others have run unopposed. Bonnie Pannell and Robbie Waters ran without any opposition two times each. And for a staggering 18 years—between 1992 and 2010—not one challenger was strong enough to unseat an incumbent.

That’s a broken system right there.

According to the Sacramento News & Review, one would-be candidate this year—a teacher—dropped her bid because she felt that holding down two jobs, including a demanding city council position, could have jeopardized her health.

Soon after Heather Fargo assumed the full-time mayor’s position and could finally let go of her second job with the state, she told the Bee, “Personally, there is no question it has been difficult juggling different aspects of my life.”

In 2002, San Francisco Supervisor Tony Hall (that city’s council members are called supervisors) told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We have to put in 10, 15 hours a day, if we’re going to be conscientious and do our job right.”

With a city budget approaching a billion dollars, are we really not willing to pay our council members more so that they can afford to spend the time it takes to do their jobs well? Where exactly are our priorities?

Part of the reason we haven’t made the change yet likely has to do with the public’s distaste for giving “politicians” pay raises. That’s shortsighted. I don’t want my city council members making less than plumbers, just like I don’t want to eat sushi at restaurants offering raw fish for “50% off all day.” There are certain things you just don’t skimp on.

With a city budget approaching a billion dollars, are we really not willing to pay our council members more so that they can afford to spend the time it takes to do their jobs well? Where exactly are our priorities?

We need to attract the best and brightest to these critical positions, and that means removing the financial barrier. Otherwise, the council will be stocked exclusively with retirees or independently wealthy individuals or those who are forced to get a second job—one that detracts from better educating themselves on the needs of the city.

Naturally, the salaries of the council and mayor should continue to be determined by a citizen-run salary commission, as they are now.

Politically, the council itself can’t ask for this change. It will look too self-serving, even though it’s the best thing for our city. Perhaps the Metro Chamber or the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council or some other group can kick-start the process to make this happen.

There is, however, one obvious champion for this cause—someone who appreciates the need for this critical change, but won’t personally benefit from it.

On his very last day as a city council member in November 1998, Darrell Steinberg—newly unencumbered by the appearance of selfish motives—weighed in on the subject.

“This city deserves a mayor and city council who are allowed to devote full time to public service,” Councilman Steinberg told the Bee. “I want to begin discussions on this, and I want to be a big part of it.”

Now Mayor Steinberg will have that chance. But we all need to pitch in. It’s about time. S