Politicians can’t always predict how the public will interpret their actions, but they know few things will prove to be as unpopular as when they vote to give themselves pay raises.
So it’s no surprise that in fiscally conservative Mesa, cautious elected officials have dared to hike their salaries only twice since 1967.
But the council is taking up the issue for the first time in more than a decade, hoping to sidestep taxpayers’ ire by forming a compensation commission so elected officials aren’t directly deciding their pay.
The City Council endorsed the idea on Thursday after the Mesa Chamber of Commerce outlined a system based on what some other municipalities and nonprofits do to establish salaries. The chamber also proposed expanding the duties of the mayor, which the council plans to consider later this year.
The chamber took up the pay issue after hearing from residents who said they were concerned at how much elected officials made, said Otto Shill, executive director of the chamber’s board. The mayor is paid about $38,000 a year, and the six council members each earn about $19,000.
The chamber wants to ensure salaries will attract competent public servants and make it possible for residents to live on the compensation without having other sources of wealth. A chamber task force that studied compensation decided a commission should meet periodically to take up the issue.
“We rejected the idea that we should pick a number,” he said. “That would be inappropriate.”
Mayor Scott Smith said it’s awkward for the council to talk about its pay and that discussions can easily be more about politics than reason. Smith he heard favorable views of a compensation committee when he spoke with his counterpart in Mesa’s sister city of Barnaby, Canada. That community adopted the approach in the last decade, he said.
“It really brought things out in the open,” Smith said. “It no longer was the dirty little secret nobody wanted to talk about and it really put it on a rational basis.”
The chamber suggested the City Council create the commission by changing the city charter, which requires voter approval. The council instead decided to pursue the change through an ordinance, which only requires the council’s approval. Smith said the ordinance is easier to change if needed, but a voter-approved system would require another election to fix any problems that might arise.
Smith said the council should have the final say because salaries are part of the budget that elected officials approve. Also, the charter currently gives the council the responsibility to set its own pay.
The compensation proposal calls for a five-member commission. It would include one person from the business community, two members working in education and two members at large. Members would be appointed by the council, meet at least every two years and serve staggered four-year terms.
The commission would consider the city’s finances when making a recommendation, which the council could accept in whole or reject.
Mesa is the 38th largest city in the U.S., with a population of 439,041. Of 29 cities with populations similar to Mesa, the average mayoral salary is about $99,000 and the average council pay is $43,000.
The chamber proposed what Shill said is a related plan to give the mayor additional duties. The plan would expand the brief job description of the mayor and vice mayor with more expansive economic development descriptions. A city charter change would require the mayor to “devote substantial time and attention” to leadership in economic development. He’d have to develop a plan every March for growth and report on new businesses and jobs in Mesa during the previous year.
The charter would require the mayor to promote the city’s image, efficient city operations, positive relations on the council and relations with citizens. Shill said he viewed the duties as “expectations” but not mandatory activities.
Shill said the chamber is pleased with today’s elected officials and wants to ensure future mayors and council members follow that lead. But Smith and some council members said they wanted to review the ideas later this summer before they’d consider any formal policies.
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