As 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.
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“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 council. Once again, we’re the last ones to get the memo.
Every other major California city has already done it, including San Diego, San Jose, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco.
There are approximately 5,700 people employed by the city of Sacramento, but only nine are elected to make 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 paid accordingly – each of them makes less than some city plumbers and parking lot supervisors.
As a result, seven of the eight council members have second jobs.
I really love this job, but people have no idea how hard City Council members work.
City Councilman Jeff Harris
As stated, 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 to do because they “only” represent neighborhoods, think again. They also make tough decisions about matters that affect the entire region.
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 time the council position requires. That’s a tough call when the construction market is booming, 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 and attending 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.
Consider that in 2008, all four council members up for re-election that year ran without an opponent.
In elections since 2000, council members 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.
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 Fargo became a full-time mayor and 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.”
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.
With a city budget approaching a billion dollars, are we really not willing to pay our council members enough so that they can afford to spend the time it takes to do their jobs as well as possible?
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 reserved exclusively for retirees, independently wealthy individuals or those who are forced to get a second job.
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 can’t push this. Perhaps the Metro Chamber or the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council or some other group can kick-start the process.
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 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.
Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at sactownmag.com. Contact Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org.